For filmmaker Todd Solondz, it's always midnight in suburbia. Life is lonely, and the natives can be hostile. In his daring second film, Happiness, the darkness engulfs victims of all ages: a boy in the throes of impending adolescence, three New Jersey sisters tormented by sex and love, an obscene phone caller trapped in a gloomy apartment decorated only with a row of baseball caps, and a bitter grandmother and her emotionally spent husband, counting out their joyless days in sunny Florida.
In 1995's harrowing Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz looked at the terrors of junior high school through the eyes of a tormented 12-year-old girl. This time he had a bigger budget, a broader view and more problems. That's because the far-ranging Happiness contains, among several other shocks, a disturbingly detailed portrait of a child molester -- part monster, mostly man -- that so upset the suits at October Films, the art-house subsidiary of giant Universal Pictures, that they declined to release the film. We never see the pedophile's acts, but we do see something of his mind's workings. That was apparently too much for October. Good Machine, the company that co-produced with Universal, took on distribution.
But Solondz is no mere sensationalist, and his carefully observed characters don't come off as freaks of nature. Weaving many interconnected plot lines and more than a dozen lives together, this gifted writer/director has fashioned a bleak, brilliant comedy about loneliness, lovelessness and alienation -- a film that constantly upends our assumptions about what is heartbreaking, what is hilarious and what is both.
In the very first scene, a sweetly insecure 30-year-old named Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) is clumsily breaking up with her geeky boyfriend (Jon Lovitz) in a restaurant booth. Suddenly their comic uncertainty gives way to his obscene, scathing tirade, and those who saw Dollhouse know they're back in Solondz country. There, striving is relentless, but happiness is a delusion. Here's Eliot's "The Waste Land" updated, with a sitcom droning away on a TV in the next room and a soul-deadening job in telephone sales to show up for the next morning.
A little later in the movie, we meet the ill-named Joy's benighted sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a bubbly house-and-garden suburbanite who happens to believe that everything's perfect in Jersey. Little does she know that her conventional psychoanalyst husband Bill (Dylan Baker) secretly lusts after the male classmates of their troubled 11-year-old son (Rufus Read). The third sister, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), is the sleek, pretty one, a successful writer supplied with many pleasures but crippled by self-loathing. Meanwhile, their parents, numb Lenny and Valium-eating Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), are losing it all, down in Boca Raton, after 40 years of marriage.
Add to this surreal mix the pudgy, desolate sex-phoner Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a neighbor (Camryn Manheim) who's stalking him, and a Russian immigrant thief named Vlad (Jared Harris), and Solondz's comic horror is complete. Here's a graveyard of shattered self-esteem, a lonely crowd of walking, talking wounded that, by turns, provokes laughter and shocked silence in us. For 135 minutes, this moviemaker sends us wildly mixed signals about what it means to be human, about the proximity of tragedy and comedy, and about life in a society where no one in a roomful of office clerks can remember the name, or the face, of a former coworker who's just committed suicide, and an apartment-house doorman can wind up chopped into little pieces in an upstairs tenant's freezer.
Happiness is risky business indeed. Now 38, New Jersey native Solondz chooses not to satanize a pedophile, but rather to turn him this way and that in the light, looking at all of his facets. Solondz neither idealizes nor mocks a seemingly Cleaveresque household in New Jersey; instead he examines it with pinpoint accuracy, layer by layer. In his disparate characters, he shows us rage enflamed by sadness, isolation governed by impotence. He shows the excitement in the face of a needy woman when a Russian cabdriver takes up a guitar and sings to her "You Light Up My Life," of all things, in an accent as thick as borscht. Anything to find happiness. We don't know whether to laugh or cry, but the emotional jolt is powerful.
Although he declines to discuss his own childhood, the narrow-framed, bespectacled Solondz clearly was no football hero back in high school, and his unblinking insight into preteen outsiders and misfits, so evident in Dollhouse, grows even more vivid here.
The most memorable presence in Happiness, and its emotional pivot, is 11-year-old Billy Maplewood, whose mother Trish lives deluded, and whose dad turns out to be a "pervert." In Billy's anguish over puberty, we find all the longings and bewilderments of the other characters, fused by innocence. The scene in which the baffled boy asks his father about his secret life is one of the most corrosive and touching things I've ever seen on a movie screen, and in it we can find the measure of Todd Solondz's courage, his devotion to emotional truth, and his willingness to challenge and discomfit audiences.
If this isn't America's most accomplished new filmmaker, I don't know who is. Damn the cowards who believe he's some kind of pornographer.
Directed by Todd Solondz. With Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Cynthia Stevenson, Ben Gazzara, Lara Flynn Boyle and Rufus Read.
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