HAPPINESS (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17

Happiness poster

Directed by: Todd Solondz

Written by: Todd Solondz

Starring: Jane Adams, Elizabeth Ashley, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Jared Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Jon Lovitz & Molly Shannon

After burning myself on a lot of horror reviews for the month of Halloween, I’m craving covering other genres again. So I decided to throw in this dark comedy to give myself some sick laughs. For those who have seen HAPPINESS before, you might be snickering at this choice because this flick is way more depressing and emotional than light-hearted and funny. Directed by Todd Solondz (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE), HAPPINESS blends the lives of various strangers and relatives together into one deranged montage of evil, abuse, and joy gained from suffering. This being said, the movie isn’t without a sense of humor. It’s not at all a laugh riot and treats its controversial subject matter with real emotion, but brilliant realistic comedy is present. Despite the laughs that come in the flick, some viewers may find themselves close to tears in the final scenes.

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Three sisters (Trish, Helen, Joy) and their parents (Mona, Lenny) encounter struggles that upend their carefully constructed existence. Mona and Lenny have fallen out of love and are going through an unofficial divorce. Joy is the constant target of ridicule from her family and finds potential love in a Russian immigrant (Vlad). Meanwhile, Helen is a writer suffering from creativity blockage that might be cured by her perverted neighbor (Allen). While Trish seems to have everything she could possibly want in life, her psychiatrist husband (Bill) is secretly a pedophile. These plot threads criss and cross through each other until everything comes to a fruition that can only end in some sort of tragedy for everyone involved. There’s no spoiler in saying that HAPPINESS is the exact opposite of its title and there’s a lot of controversy around this film for completely understandable reasons.

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Despite the film never once delving into outright on-screen scenes of graphic evil, these topics are present in many conversations that make up the overall plot. This is a movie that thrives on relationships between its characters who all know each other or are vicariously related in some way. This being said, those interweaving storylines can be a bit of a mess during a couple of stretches. Certain plot threads are far more interesting than others. The strongest and most disturbing of which is Dylan Baker’s Bill doing awful things. Every scene with him is purposefully hard to watch, especially discussions with his son about the birds and the bees. Besides Baker’s outstanding performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman also steals the show as Allen. We’re thrown into the depressing world of this unhappy man who’s obsessed with rape fantasies and takes no interest in the obvious neighbor with a crush on him. One plot thread feels like it could have been edited out entirely for a tighter final cut and that’s the separation between Mona and Lenny. Joy’s overall journey isn’t the most compelling either, but I really liked her story arc.

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Seeing as the film relies so much upon its characters for a plot, the performances are all rock solid. Besides the aforementioned Baker and Hoffman, a young Jared Harris has a memorable role as Vlad. Other familiar faces include Jon Lovitz and Molly Shannon in a couple of brief scenes, the former supplying one of the funniest openings to a movie that immediately sets the somber feeling of everything to come. The actresses playing the sisters (Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson) haven’t gone on to become anything huge, but they do a great job of playing these women with their own individual flaws (willful deception, gullibility, power complex). Director/writer Todd Solondz masterfully mixes drama with the comedy. HAPPINESS can be darkly hilarious, but it never loses the sense that these are real fleshed-out characters and their suffering is painful to watch. There’s a whole vibe of being uncomfortable that never disappears or lightens up for a single second and stayed with me a while after the film had ended.

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The title of HAPPINESS itself slapped on a film like this gives you the immediate impression of how the humor will play out here. There’s a nasty sense of irony around every scene and the film basically comes to a close with all of these characters broken, emotionally damaged beyond repair or just plain weeping with no positive end in sight to their sad existence. The narrative can be a bit jumbled at times and I’d attribute this to one plot thread too many. The scenes with the parents were unneeded and the film could have easily thrived much better if it were just focused on the sisters along with those around them. This being said, HAPPINESS is a really fucked up slice of life that will be permanently engraved into your memory.

Grade: B+

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