Proving that the spiky and affecting Welcome to the Dollhouse was no fluke, writer/director Todd Solondz follows up with a harrowing comedy about pain, isolation, and dysfunction in New York and New Jersey. With a scope and ambition that serves him well, Solondz cross-cuts his narrative among the stories of an extended family, crafting a remarkably coherent story out of these increasingly disquieting vignettes. Think of Altman’s Short Cuts reimagined for the East Coast, or Neil La Bute’s Your Friends and Neighbors with less smug distance. The key difference between Solondz and La Bute? Compassion.

Photographs of Solondz suggest a bespectacled geek who bears a close resemblance to Dawn Wiener, the girl who slogged through Dollhouse‘s bleak junior high school universe. That persona seems to have splintered in Happiness into myriad character types. There’s Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), a black-clad poet who knocks ’em dead at readings and book signings but secretly believes her work is presumptuous and insincere. In search of gritty experience, Helen is intrigued by an obscene phone call from Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight basket case who’s working his way through the phone book, masturbating bitterly.

Allen also rings Helen’s sister Joy (Jane Adams), a soft-spoken songwriter who’s emotionally pummelled by the equally needy people around her. (Pretending to be an acquaintance, he asks her what she’s wearing and she responds sweetly and naively, unaware that she’s being had.) The third sister, and the only one to have married, is Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who has a husband, a home, and a family — the kind of life that Helen claims to covet. The neighbor kids call Trish’s psychiatrist husband (Dylan Baker) “Dr. Maplewood.” Bill Maplewood seems to be a gentle, understanding father, but he’s also a pedophile spiraling out of control. In a sequence that’s both wryly comic and horrific, he slips a Mickey into a boy’s tuna sandwich during a sleepover, the better to take advantage of him. What’s most heartbreaking is the relationship between Bill and his son, who share an uncommon (and unsettling, given the context) candor about sex. The whole film moves inexorably toward a wrenching conversation between the two that once again crystallizes Solondz’ regard for childhood as trial by fire.

If the synopsis above sounds like it may be too much to take in one 134-minute sitting, be grateful I haven’t described the separation of the Jordan sisters’ parents after 40 years of marriage (executed with sangfroid and loneliness by Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), the Russian cab driver’s game, an early outburst from the spurned lover played by Jon Lovitz, or the fate of Pedro the doorman. Despite the considerable downers, what’s most notable about Happiness may be its seamless fusion of low comedy and human tragedy. Solondz recognizes that, no matter how bleak this life may be, there’s also something fundamentally absurd about our day-to-day struggle toward “happiness,” and a reassurance to be had in the bitter humor that accompanies unspeakable sorrow. Accordingly, the performances he draws from his cast beg us to recognize that humor without resort to mockery or caricature.

Particularly crucial is Baker’s finely tuned portrait of that most chilling incongruity, a family man and child raper. In a film peppered with slatternly depictions of humanity, allegedly sick humor, and twice as much semen as I’ve seen in any mainstream flick, the one element that led Universal Pictures to disown Happiness (which was set to be released by their adventurous October Films division) was its refusal to imagine Maplewood as a monster. All the credit goes to Baker’s portrayal of a man who, calmly, quietly, and with little apparent soul-searching, leaps into his own abyss.

Against the odds, Solondz makes all of these bits work as a whole through canny scripting and characterization. Sometimes, it’s like watching a car crash. Individual moments may seem cruel, mean-spirited or even deliberately “shocking” (in a couple of scenes, he may go too far out on the limb in search of one more outrageous twist), but Solondz plays fair with these misfits and criminals, using them as narrative prisms, each reflecting fragments of our own lives back at us.

Having crafted two movies that take a clear-eyed, deeply felt gander at the dark truths undermining the sunny ideal of American life, Solondz is more than just another hipster angling for shock value. He shares with the best filmmakers a wit, self-assurance and off-kilter grace that enable him to stare down his demons decisively, even as he conjures new ones. Having arrived on the stagnant “indie” film scene just when we needed him most, Solondz takes his place among the most fearless and incisive directors working today.

Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Cinematography by Maryse Alberti
Edited by Alan Oxman
Starring Jane Admas, Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman,
and Lara Flynn Boyle
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
USA, 1998

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