Todd Solondz feels your pain, and he wants to make sure you feel it too. Say what you will about Happiness, his punishing sketchbook of suburban evils, you can’t accuse it of punking out. Apart from sex, that seems to be the governing fear of a new generation of indie brutes: that they’ll somehow back away from a chance to make us squirm.
Solondz has no problems there. Happiness purports to attack sitcom-like complacency with a barrage of abuse, perversion, and dysfunction; in doing so, it carries the concept of black comedy into some new, sunless realm. After two hours and 20 minutes of unrelieved anguish, however, Solondz’s world without light is scarcely more believable than some TV-land without darkness. Even if you infect Leave It to Beaver with rabies, at some level you’re still left with Leave It to Beaveran artificial universe limited by its creator’s single-minded vision.
Before the title appears, the movie has already established its gall-and-wormwood tone. At an elegant restaurant, moist-eyed, well-meaning Joy Jordan (played by Jane Adams) mouths all the rote niceties that preface dumping your date. Across the table, the dumpee (Jon Lovitz, who else?) sits in wordless agony. He finally produces an expensive trinket and hands it to Joy, who murmurs some banality about how she’ll always treasure it, blah blah blah. Without warning, he snatches it back. It’s for the woman who loves him for who he is, not what he looks like. “You are shit,” he snaps, “and I am champagne.” Then a neat little scrawl appears on a field of black: Happiness.
Thus Solondz sets up two of his abiding themes. First, all relationships, no matter how politely disguised, are power imbalances in which one person holds all the cards. Second, given the opportunity, the loser will always lash back with a vengeance. The rest of Happiness extends the hurting chain through an Altman-esque tangle of interlocked characters, including Joy’s sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a self-obsessed poet who expects retribution for her shallowness; her parents (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), who stew in mutual loathing; and Helen’s pale, pudgy, socially paralyzed neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who expresses his pitiful longings in masturbatory crank-call rape fantasies. The biggest chump of all is Trish Maplewood (Cynthia Stevenson), the sister with the nice suburban home, the three kids, and the sexless dream marriage. Of course, that’s before her upright psychiatrist husband, Bill (Dylan Baker), starts raping the neighborhood boys.
Get the picture? As he demonstrated in Welcome to the Dollhouse, his black-humored 1996 peek inside the hell of middle school, Solondz’s ear can pick up dogwhistle-pitched variations in cruelty. He’s never funnier than when he’s skewering the ugly things people say in the name of openness and concernas when Trish coos to Joy she’s glad they’re so close, so Trish can tell her musician sister everyone thinks she’s a failure. He’s never more acute or perceptive than when he’s exploring the volatile charged space between lonely people. There’s a brilliant shot of Allen and Helen sitting tensely at opposite ends of a couch, at opposite ends of the frame; the only thing moving in this still life is Allen’s hand, which inches across the vast expanse of sofa toward a flicker of human contact.
For every moment of perception or poignance, though, there’s an added twist of emotional sadism. Welcome to the Dollhouse contained an awful, misconceived sequence involving the kidnapping of the 13-year-old heroine’s bratty kid sister: You wondered what kind of director would ask an audience to laugh at the parents’ worry and fear. But Solondz captured an adolescent’s embattled worldview so uncannily in the rest of the film that you glanced past his lapse in judgment. Happiness builds on the most vicious aspects of Welcome to the Dollhouse as if they were a dare.
Solondz uses rape and sexual humiliation throughout to set up appalling punchlines. In one scene, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen’s adoring neighbor, recounts her harrowing assault by a doorman she asked for help carrying groceries. Solondz films the attack, then allows the obese woman to deliver a grotesque whammy as she sits eating ice cream. It’s not enough that she’s traumatized, although that point also is fudged; Solondz has to make her a horror-movie murderess and then cap the story with a facetious effect that’s pure cowardice.
That outrage pales beside the scene in which a sodomized boy tries to tell a policeman what happened. The boy’s recollections are vague, but that’s not good enough for his blustery, impatient father“You were fucking raped!” he yells. By this point, it’s Solondz’s audience that feels fucking rapedas much by the director’s misanthropy as by his “ironic” affectlessness. Solondz views the Maplewoods’ airy home as hypocrisy personified; in case we don’t get it, he punctuates scenes with goofy sitcom-style stingers. Happiness is a pipe dream promulgated by TV, and the best we can hope for is to have our puny illusions crushed.
Hence the breakthrough moment in which the pedophile father confesses to his 11-year-old son (Rufus Read)a well-played, intriguingly ambiguous scene that’s nevertheless played for a discomforting mix of tenderness and shock humor. Yet with rare exceptions, Solondz’s own characterizations don’t cut much deeper than a syndicated rerun. Once a character appears, he or she is usually defined by a single traitHelen’s brittle self-absorption, Trish’s bland concern, Joy’s flakinessand locked into the same path of embarrassment and mortification. Pleasantville it ain’t, but is this larval vision really any less reductive?
Happiness follows Your Friends and Neighbors, Gummo, In the Company of Men, Kids, and a trail of cinematic outrages extending all the way back to Blue Velvet, which itself isn’t holding up very well these days. What these films share, besides an awkward teen’s hysterical terror of sex, is an inscrutable ironic detachment meant to deflect any moral qualms; it allows the audience to hide behind nervous laughter and the filmmaker to hide behind a veil of ambiguity. Happiness, like Your Friends and Neighbors and Kids, robs its characters of hope, then presents the filmmaker’s own narrow agenda as the scalding truth. The truth is, given options like Happiness, is it any wonder audiences would retreat to Nick at Nite?
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