Dir: Todd Solondz, 1998. Starring: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Comedy.

Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risqué subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.

The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.

Movies that cause big controversies tend to obscure the actual quality of a film because of how politically loaded one's reaction to the film can feel. If one over praises a film that gets this much heat it can seem a little sophomoric, like they just want to seem with it. If a critic finds it in poor taste and just not that funny—it does get filed under "comedy" at Amoeba—they run the risk of seeming really square. Time, as always, makes old controversies seem pretty irrelevant and I think that time has been more or less kind to Happiness as it holds up as an exceptionally smart ensemble piece about life for the deeply miserable. And the gallows humor goes a long way towards making what is such a vivid portrait of loneliness more or less bearable.

The movie revolves around three sisters with three distinct personalities living in New Jersey. Trish Maplewood (Cynthia Stevenson) is the smarmy "perfect" one with the big house in the suburbs and the psychiatrist husband and three kids. Helen Jordan is a pretentious writer (scary Lara Flynn Boyle) who worries to herself that she's no good and Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) is the nice one who is easily kicked around by pretty much everyone in her life. As the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in his review of Solandz's 2001 film Storytelling, in Solandz's universe there are victims and predators and not much in between.

What's really going on with these characters and the people in their lives is basically a catalog of obscene dysfunction. Trish's husband (Philip Baker Hall) is a pedophile who rapes several of his son's 11-year-old classmates (offscreen). Helen's next door neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a sweaty, nervous wreck who makes violently obscene phone calls to women he finds in the telephone book while masturbating. Joy's boyfriend is a Russian cab driver who doesn't mention the wife he has during their fling and then later shakes her down for money after his wife has attacked her. The parents of the three sisters are living out their years in a joyless marriage that their dad (Ben Gazzara) abruptly ends to be with other women before realizing that he can't perform sexually. And then there's Kristina (played by Camryn Manheim), the morbidly obese woman who lives in Allen and Helen's building who murders her doorman who had raped her earlier and disposes of his body by cutting him up into little pieces and sticking his remains in her freezer.

How you react to these kinds of shenanigans depends, I guess, on your capacity for provocative material and whether or not you buy the context that the material is presented in which is heavy on irony. Solandz seems to be daring us to empathize with some of these people occupying varying stages of perversity and he insists on making it as difficult as possible while at the same time demanding our understanding. Depending on your point of view he is either a brave humanist or the worst kind of nihilist who cynically rubs our faces in the wreckage of his meticulously assembled freak show.

What is just as important to Solondz as turning a bright unforgiving light on the awful transgressions of his characters is not denying a sense of humor about them. It’s this unmistakable humor that creeps up in his movies, I think, that turns so many people off. Solandz’s humor tends to increase the pathos of his films instead of breaking their sense of nausea-inducing tension. When the pedophile's son tearfully asks his dad whether he ever considered raping him and his dad, also in tears, tells him that he would have just “jerked off instead” we're really blurring the line between darkly comic and just unrelentingly dark. This is, I suspect, Todd Solandz's vantage point of choice for looking at the world. We can understand the tragedy of what a lost soul the pedophile psychiatrist is and the genuine love he has for his son, we can even hope that Allen and Kristina find a way out of their loneliness with each other, but just as the slightest hint of hope comes into the picture there's usually a horribly comical twist around the corner that comes as a slap in the face making Solandz’s conception of life itself seem like a cruel joke but a joke that still has the potential to elicit laughter, awkward or otherwise .

The actors, brave lot that they are, are entirely at the service of Solandz's words and they are admirably game for what must be an intense and draining experience getting in the heads of these creeps and sad sacks and sadists. Critics have continually dismissed Solandz's stock character types as thinly conceived and entirely defined by their dysfunctions. I think Solandz would probably shrug and say that we are uncomfortable with the truth of people and their behavior and that if we really knew what the woman down the hall was up to we might realize how close Solandz's world is to our own.

Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 22, 2009 11:25am
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