Happiness (1998)

Kurly Tlapoyawa
4 min read
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When somebody comes into Burning Paradise Video looking for a “dark” comedy, I usually direct them to Happiness, an ass-kicking little film by cult fan favorite Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse). Of course, I have to preface my suggestion by making it perfectly clear that by dark comedy I mean extremely dark, sick, twisted, disturbing and funny as all hell. The film plays like a perversely deranged version of Magnolia, in that there are numerous stories and characters which intersect throughout the film. At the center of this disturbing joyride are three New Jersey sisters: Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson).

Happiness opens up with Joy breaking it off with her most recent pathetic boyfriend (a genius performance by John Lovitz, who gives quite possibly the best anti-rejection speech ever). It seems that Joy has a habit of attracting nothing but losers, while her two sisters are leading what appear on the surface to be perfect lives. Helen is a wildly successful author without a care in the world, and Trish has a model marriage, home and loving family–or so it seems.

Helen (whose entire body of work appears to revolve around being raped) views herself as a pretentious fraud who can be exposed at any given moment. “If only I had been raped as a child,” she laments. Luckily for Helen, a serial phone pervert named Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman, giving the best performance in the movie) rings her up one night and threatens to rape her. Helen is thrilled at the possibility and gives Allen a callback using *69. Much to Allen's dismay, Helen is quite turned on by the prospect of being sexually assaulted. Allen, on the other hand, is freaked out by the whole ordeal. When Helen declares, “I want you to fuck me,” all he can muster up in response is a nervous, “I … I don't think I can do that.” Man, nobody plays pathetic better than Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Trish, on the other hand, is living a fairy tale existence. Her two sons are loyal and loving and her husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is a well-respected psychiatrist. But like everything else in this movie, nothing is as it seems. Young Billy (Justin Elvin) is obsessed with the size of his penis and distraught over his inability to orgasm. And dear ol' dad is a pedophile—his desire for young men brimming just below the surface of his well-mannered exterior. In one of the film's most uncomfortable scenes, Billy invites his best friend over to spend the night and Bill slips drugs into everyone's food. He sits nervously, watching the young boy, waiting for him to pass out so he can make his move. Eeeewwwww.

Eventually, Joy winds up taking a job teaching English to recent immigrants when the regular teachers go on strike. After suffering the daily ridicule and contempt of the strikers every time she crosses the picket line, Joy finally breaks down. She is consoled by one of her Russian students named Vlad (Jared Harris, who belts out a bitchin acoustic version of “You Light Up My Life” in full-on seduction mode), who offers her a ride home in his cab. Needless to say, Joy's luck does not change, as it turns out that Vlad is not only married, but a self-employed thief. This chick just can't catch a break, I tell ya.

Throughout this entire adventure, it's apparent that Solondz believes that happiness is a mythical ideal–a prize sought by all of us but seldom ever achieved. Happiness was plagued with controversy before it was even released, causing original distributor Universal to drop it from its line entirely. And while John Waters has heaped praise upon it, the notorious Farrelly brothers denounced it as “sick” in a New York Times Magazine interview. This, coming from a pair of hacks that do nothing but rip off Lloyd Kaufman movies. Yeah, the movie is pretty disturbing, but it is uncompromising and relentless in its portrayal of the characters as flawed human beings–without ever passing judgment on them. The film went on to win the International Critics’ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. While it is presented in Letterbox format, the DVD leaves nothing else in terms of extras. Which is sad, because a movie like this is screaming for a commentary track. One can only hope that Criterion picks it up at some point in the future for a proper release. (Lions Gate)

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