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Happiness (1998)
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Todd Solondz' masterpiece."
5 stars

'Happiness,' by the independent artist Todd Solondz ('Welcome to the Dollhouse'), is a sobering and devastating comedy -- yes, comedy -- about such things as loneliness, despair, murder, and pedophilic rape. Not necessarily in that order.

Solondz doesn't make the ha-ha-funny, sitcom-level comedies most people are comfortable with. His humor, indeed, arises from intense discomfort. When a sweaty, flabby loser is spitting sexual taunts into his phone, or when a pedophile is having a calm, candid talk with his curious 11-year-old son about erections, you laugh in disbelief; the laughter is quickly choked off.

The movie is a series of interconnected anecdotes dealing with a group of mostly well-off New Jersey suburbanites. There are three sisters: the chic, disdainful writer Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), the smug wife and mother Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), and the rather lost and unambitious Joy (Jane Adams) -- all, of course, miserable in their own ways. Helen, for instance, feels like a phony for getting praise she doesn't think she deserves; she and Trish (whose buried hostility comes out in odd, passive-aggressive bursts) look at their less successful sister Joy with pity. Joy, who bounces from job to job and boyfriend to boyfriend, is a delicate-natured woman -- the type who will always search for something or someone to cling to.

Trish's husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is a psychiatrist with a placid and precise demeanor; you feel that everything about him is manicured. That façade conceals a deep and uncontrollable fixation: he buys teeny-bopper magazines and whacks off in his car to the photos of young boys. Soon enough, he's planning to rape one of his own son's friends. This pedophile storyline, which has gotten all the attention, is overall one of the most disturbing things I've seen in a movie -- in no small part because Solondz doesn't let us stand apart from Bill and judge him. In a sequence that redefines "horror," Bill puts drugs in a young boy's tuna-salad sandwich, plotting to rape the boy once he passes out. Solondz' control, and Dylan Baker's phenomenally detailed performance, are such that when the boy initially tells Bill he doesn't want the sandwich, we actually feel a twinge of defeat along with Bill.

It would be easy to close ourselves off from Bill, and from everyone else in Happiness, including sad, heavy Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), one of Bill's patients, who makes obscene phone calls to random women. Or Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen's lonely neighbor, who one-ups Allen's outrages and then some. But Solondz asks us to do something more difficult, which most Americans are not prepared to do -- we're programmed to cluck and finger-point at anything we find morally reprehensible. It's more instructive, and in the end more fulfilling, to allow ourselves to understand (if not condone) horrible actions and the compulsions that drive them.

Solondz' previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was a deadpan study of the hell that is junior high; Happiness is heavier and darker and much more daring, a quality reflected by the independent distributor October Films' frightened decision to pass on the film (pressured by its parent studio Universal). Taking a page from Solondz himself, I don't condone this decision, but I understand it: Happiness is tough stuff -- quietly confrontational, genuinely haunting, and, most disturbing of all, unexpectedly moving.

When Bill is honest for the last time with his 11-year-old son, telling him what he did and why, 'Happiness' gets so deep under your skin that you'll spend a week trying to work through your feelings about Bill -- and everyone else in this great and searing movie.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=432&reviewer=416
originally posted: 01/08/07 22:01:54
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User Comments

3/24/18 morris campbell twisted trash wildly over praised by some critics yuck 1 stars
5/07/15 stanley welles a brave and brilliantly realized piece of work 5 stars
8/07/14 David Hollingsworth Savages, twisted and brilliantly perverse. 5 stars
10/23/09 Peter Best review (alongside roger ebert's) Peerless black comedy, unusually harsh drama.Suberb! 5 stars
5/27/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess One of the best movies ever made... just make sure you have a strong stomach 5 stars
4/01/09 matt a great character drama and a hilarious black comedy. a little nihilistic though. 4 stars
8/10/08 erin u was disgusted the first time, learned to like it by the 2nd, total hilarity by the 3rd 5 stars
10/24/07 Ivana Mann Tired foray into the Perversity=Art school of "independent" filmmaking.Yawwwwn. 2 stars
2/08/07 mckrob loved it ! 5 stars
3/17/06 MP Bartley Scaborous, black and biting comedy. Hoffman, Adams and Baker are tremendous. 4 stars
1/10/06 malcolm this movie was in the comedy section of my favorite video store. NOT FUNNY. 3 stars
12/02/05 Jennifer S. Very strange movie, the funniest part was the lady who killed the doorman. 3 stars
8/01/05 Indrid Cold The forced quirkiness is forgivable because it's so smart, funny and insightful. 5 stars
6/19/05 DM Well-acted and occasionally moving but relentlessly downbeat and sometimes mean-spirited. 3 stars
12/23/04 Nick Boyd very disturbing and insightful look at suburbia 5 stars
8/16/04 Peter James Don't mind the contradictory title...this one is plain brilliant 5 stars
7/13/04 Daveman Making a laughing stock out of manic depressives would be okay if it were actually funny. 2 stars
6/22/04 tokio dixx a masterpiece 5 stars
6/04/04 MyGreenBed Easily Solondz's masterpiece. Still has his brand of shock, though done with a point (?). 4 stars
5/29/04 Proteus Didn't stop laughing after the park scene - even as people walked out. Bleak and funny. 5 stars
2/23/04 Naturezrevenge Pitch-black humour for the sick fuck in all of us. Feel sympathy for the pedo. You will. 5 stars
11/18/03 s'tude This film made me feel uncomfortable unlike any film i've seen recently. Great acting. 4 stars
9/14/03 confused i guess you have to be stoned to get the movie? 1 stars
11/14/02 Stevo 'We're not laughing at you. We're laughing with you." "But I'm not laughing..." 5 stars
10/29/02 Charles Tatum Dare to be different 5 stars
10/11/02 rue the whirl solondz makes movies for the shock value, but doing so, he shows us how pathetic we can be 4 stars
4/23/02 Wyatt Winston Hell Yeah 5 stars
3/24/02 Gary Glitter Love it !!!!!!!! 5 stars
1/08/02 Spyguy2 The movie American Beauty didn't have the balls to be...mesmerizing & disturbing 5 stars
12/11/01 slappy jacks sticking pictures to the wall with jizz yeah!!! dig it one sick fuck of a movie 5 stars
8/29/01 Lee American Beauty with fewer outright laughs but more disturbing and thought provoking 4 stars
4/25/01 Spetters Wow! hilarious and unsettling! 5 stars
3/18/01 J.Arcane Better than American Beauty 5 stars
3/06/01 Scott It is found under comedy but you feel uncomforable laughing at this movie.I loved it 5 stars
2/20/01 Rocket Boy Biting. Shouls be seen by everyone...with an open-mind. 5 stars
2/05/01 Classcidog Disgusting,perverted,disturbing,but funny as hell 4 stars
1/02/01 Lynkay I want a copy of this engaging, hilarious film! Reminds you of Woody Allen's style. 5 stars
12/10/00 meghan this movie was such a piece of crap. yet, i found myself watching the whole damn thing 1 stars
11/11/00 biggun great, hilarious, courageous film but a bit uneven in parts. 5 stars
9/26/00 Chris Jerome one of the worst movies ever 1 stars
9/05/00 Boy In The Designer Bubble child porn at its best. The director should be arrested. 1 stars
7/11/00 Jami Disgusting, repulsive, and perverted. 1 stars
6/23/00 Aaron White Eightball's Dan Clowes did the poster, with good reason. Ibsen meets Levittown. 5 stars
4/30/00 perverted pixie Ironic title, this film is so depressing its hilarious! 5 stars
11/12/99 Matthew Smith Disturbing and very confronting at times. 5 stars
10/28/99 Ralf Behet The director shows only little sympathy for his characters. Too little! 2 stars
10/26/99 hum depresing and great are not the same thing 3 stars
9/16/99 strike Very bleak and very funny.Great performances,great script,great direction. simply GREAT! 5 stars
8/20/99 Fork Lists up with fucked up films like "cemetary man" and "dead alive" but much worse. 4 stars
8/19/99 nostradmous Worst film all year 1 stars
8/02/99 Weird Andy It lit up my life. 5 stars
7/12/99 ken heine the dream scene was cool. 4 stars
6/24/99 cinebimbo The sick underbelly of suburbia exposed at last! Fuck "Shakespeare"--the best film of 1998! 5 stars
6/18/99 movie troll Perfect acting, perfect script, perfectly disturbing. 5 stars
6/15/99 Ver-Jun Move over orson welles, Todd Solondz is a film god! he is my new GOD! 5 stars
6/01/99 mammyrammer I came. 5 stars
5/12/99 Skye A very good movie I never want to see again. 5 stars
5/12/99 Dove Top of the class of 1999 5 stars
5/03/99 jenna devoid i see no necessity in procuring sympathy or humor directed towards a pedophile!! 2 stars
4/26/99 Annearchy, Damme, Satanne See this. Todd Solondz is a genius. Suburban nightmares. 5 stars
4/02/99 Lily I feel pain. Thank you. 5 stars
3/14/99 Ah Dooey Great movie. Hurts you right between the eyes. 5 stars
1/12/99 lawrence most amazing film in 10 years 5 stars
1/06/99 Jon sexcellent 5 stars
12/15/98 Sammy the CodFish A great film. Kicks you right in the guts. 5 stars
12/12/98 Amadou Best movie of 1998. David Lynch and Robert Altman should be taking notes. 5 stars
12/10/98 Mike McFaland probably the funniest movie I've seen in two or three years 5 stars
12/07/98 Gamma It was a good film, but I feel traumatized now. 4 stars
11/25/98 Missy You'll never look at family life the same way again... 5 stars
11/24/98 Bridgette who thinks of this? talk about original! 5 stars
11/21/98 Brindle I would say that it takes a lot to shock me and leave me somewhat disturbed! This did it! 5 stars
11/14/98 dforcher Interesting. Fast 2 hours. Examples of how sexuality ties into pursuit of happiness. 4 stars
11/13/98 Lord Of The Dunce One of those films that disturbs and enthralls. Solondz is da man. 5 stars
11/01/98 foozil Look! They're all miserable! Isn't that great?!? 1 stars
10/20/98 grunter brilliant daredevil cinema; dizzying, jawdropping script; best "cum" scene of '98!!! 5 stars
10/19/98 Aint-It-Cool The performances in this movie are uniformily brilliant. 5 stars
10/18/98 Vincent A worthy follow-up to WELCOME... but nearly as great as has been suggested 4 stars
10/17/98 Chris It was a happy movie... Or Not. It was great though if you are old enough go see it! 4 stars
10/17/98 Mr Showbiz Depravity in the ’burbs. Certain to be the most-talked-about indie of the year. 4 stars
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  16-Oct-1998 (R)


  25-Mar-1999 (R)

Directed by
  Todd Solondz

Written by
  Todd Solondz

  Jane Adams
  Dylan Baker
  Ben Gazzara
  Marla Maples
  Jon Lovitz

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