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Review: 'Happiness' offers disturbing performances

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

Web posted on: Monday, October 19, 1998 5:57:37 PM EDT

(CNN) -- "Happiness," the new movie from writer/director Todd Solondz, is a pitch-black comedy about an "average" group of New Jersey-ites (including three sisters, a psychiatrist husband, an obese woman, and a sexually frustrated loner) sweating and cringing their way to personal zeniths of sexual dysfunction. Solondz is playing the sick puppy game these days, raising the ante on bottom-feeding charlatans like David Lynch by actually daring to empathize with the sexual misfits he has created.

Theatrical preview: "Happiness"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Why aren't you married?"

Video clip: 2.1Mb QuickTime

I'm telling you, you get it all in "Happiness" -- masturbating adults, masturbating children, ejaculations splashing on bedroom walls, sexual predators getting chopped up and stuck in Baggies, obscene phone calls, adultery, betrayal, and (as a special bonus) a pedophile father who drugs his young playmates and rapes them during sleep-overs.

Try not to laugh too hard.

Strengths and weaknesses

This is a terribly difficult film to review because I think a lot of it works beautifully as a character study while remaining wholly distasteful when you consider that there are actual people being victimized in the real world while you're sitting there watching it. And they aren't snickering. Everybody's talking about the pedophilia subplot, of course (and it's certainly the most troublesome part of the film), but that's just the most obvious of Solondz's over-the-top indulgences.

He empathizes with his characters all right, but just long enough to get them into a position where they can be humiliated. Then, when the humiliation is over, he gets right back to empathizing again, as a segue to more humiliation. Gee, that's real big of him. If the subject matter doesn't get to you, then you might want to focus on the highly questionable redundancy of those abasements.

Dylan Baker gives a truly startling, inwardly-crumbling performance as the tortured father, but you have to wonder what Solondz thinks he's accomplishing here. Don't worry -- I fully realize that I can't win by questioning him. I mean, polite suburban pedophilia is just about the ripest target a hip young filmmaker can zero in on, don't you think? If you don't like it, then you're just living a sheltered, reality-phobic life. But I live in New York City, where reality continually rears its ugly head in Hungry Man-size portions. All you have to do is open up the newspaper. I'm just wondering why showing a little bit of concern for the defenseless victims out there has suddenly become so unfashionable.

The movie's best scenes imply that all of us are caught up in desires that are quite beyond our control, and (whether or not I completely agree with the self-control issue) I fully believe the sincerity of Solondz's position. But the showboating bluntness with which every single moment in the movie is presented becomes pointedly cruel at times, as if that big ol' marshmallow heart of his is laced with broken glass. These moments display a meanness that's purportedly not a part of Solondz's game plan. As a story-teller, he seems every bit as confused as the people he's sympa-mocking.

Brave performances

So now for the good parts (with qualifiers), and, when you consider how distasteful I found much of the film to be, there's a surprising number of them. There are even a couple of possible Oscar nominees in the cast, if anybody in the Academy can get past the gag-inducing subject matter. As I said, Baker is just marvelous, wallowing in self-disgust even as he secretly prepares for his hideous trysts. It must have been awful for him to play many of these scenes, and the results are wholly, horribly convincing. It's just about the bravest thing I've seen at the movies this year.

There's also a less-flashy but every bit as impressive turn from Jane Adams as one of the three sisters: a skinny, would-be Carole King named (easy joke) Joy. Joy is the most touching character in the movie, a lonely, moony type of woman who just wants a boyfriend and -- though she's amusingly untalented -- a shot at folk singing stardom. The wind almost seems to pick Joy up and blow her through her life, and she usually comes to rest in the most unfortunate locations. Even when you think she has found some salvation (in the form of a Russian immigrant cab driver played by Jared Harris), she ends up getting used and abused with a great deal more vigor than she deserves. But she's resilient; you come out of the theater liking her ... and only her.

There's really not a weak performance in the cast, although a few of the characters are bit too pat for complete comfort. Lara Flynn Boyle (now officially the world's thinnest living actress) is an alluring novelist who feels she's a phony because she writes about sexual terror while never having experienced any. I strongly suspect that she's having self-doubts as a cushion between Solondz and the critics who are going to say that maybe he'd be less likely to chuckle over sexual abuse if it had actually happened to him. (Maybe it did happen to him, though, which makes the tone all the more questionable.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman (the gay production assistant in "Boogie Nights") also wrings a great deal of hyper-tense humor out of an obscene phone caller who's obsessed with next-door-neighbor Boyle. Their eventual "connection" with each other is about as lonely a scene as you'll ever witness that contains two people. The cast is rounded out by Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser as a long-married couple who are seeking a divorce, Cynthia Stevenson as the self-deluded wife of the pedophile, Camryn Manheim as the overweight psycho, and Elizabeth Ashley as an adulterer who eventually has a stroke. You really gotta wonder what was going on around the Solondz household.

Is this groundbreaking?

As sharp as some of the writing is, Solondz is still not enough of a director to successfully negotiate this emotional minefield. The large cast of characters isn't intricately woven; stories get going, then disappear for 20 minutes, and reappear when you've almost forgotten about them. And some of the wise-guy humor in Baker and Stevenson's kitchen is simple in the extreme. The music is particularly annoying, conveying an outright "Leave it to Beaver" tone that could have been arrived at by any halfway aware high school student ("What if Ward wanted to have sex with Larry?!"). Solondz also marches out lousy pop songs from the 1970's as facile signifiers, as if anybody who actually likes "Mandy" or "All Out of Love" is genetically inferior to guys who hang with Michael Stipe. You know, guys like Solondz.

So, finally, just how groundbreaking is this thing? If Americans are really as sick as all this, then Solondz is taking the back door to giving the people what they want. If there's any poetic justice, some abused child out there will grow up to make a movie during which a goofy-looking independent film maker gets bent over an editing console and receives a "satirical" violation. Then the violator could hug him and give him a cookie. And a choice distribution deal.

"Happiness" is everything you've heard (and just read) that it is. Anybody who would consider bringing a kid to see this needs to get his head examined. After this, the only thing left for supposedly humorous dissection will be Grandma on the kitchen table. Not rated, because, I imagine, an NC-17 would be the kiss of death at the box office. 134 minutes, making it too long-winded by about half an hour.

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