Happiness

          Todd Solondz made a splash with WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE,
  a snarky, angst-ridden look at adolescence that was wonderfully acted,
  brutally honest and not always easy to watch. With the ironically titled
  
HAPPINESS, Solondz vaults to the rarefied echelon of leading independent
  filmmakers. As you may already know, Happiness comes with baggage.
  It was originally picked up for distribution by October Films, but Seagram
  and Universal, both parent companies of October, exerted pressure to drop
  the distribution of the film, citing inappropriate content. I am not revealing
  anything out of hand to say that
HAPPINESS includes two shot of ejaculate,
  an obscene phone caller and other adult content. But when a comedy film
  like
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, which uses semen as a visual
  gag, can become a box-office hit and the news media is flooded with
  references to semen-stained dresses, sex acts involving a cigar and frank
  discussion of oral sex, boundaries have clearly become nonexistent. It is
  infuriating that this engrossing and flawed masterpiece should not only be
  orphaned by its distributor but also threatened with an NC-17 rating by
  the MPAA. Ted Hope and James Schamus came to the rescue by forming
  Good Machine Releasing, a division of their production company, and
  getting this film out unreleased. Undoubtedly it will be a critics' darling;
  whether that translates to the box-office, one can only hope.

          Several early reviews have noted the similarities between Solondz's
    HAPPINESS and Woody Allen's 1986 brilliant HANNAH AND HER SISTERS.
  Both films focus on a trio of siblings, their families and lovers and both
  treat their characters (flaws and all) with bittersweet compassion. To my
  mind Allen's is the superior film only because he has been making films
  for much longer. While there is a great deal to admire in
HAPPINESS
  
 (with a running time of 140 minutes) there is also a tendency for scenes
  to drag on too long and the structure could use some tightening. Far
  too much time elapses before we are returned to the more interesting
  characters.

          Solondz has set the story primarily in suburban New Jersey and
  the focus in one three sisters: Helen, the oldest and a successful poet,
  Trish, a chirpy housewife convinced she has it all, and Joy, a waif-like
  thirty-year old still struggling to find her life's mission as well as Mr. Right.
  The other main characters are the girls' parents, Florida residents
  struggling with boredom and a crumbling marriage, Trish's husband,
  Bill Maplewood, a psychotherapist with a secret, their pre-teen,
  angst-ridden son Billy, and Helen's neighbors, a lonely portly man who
  makes obscene phone calls and an even lonelier heavyset woman who
  proves to be less harmless than she seems. These well-drawn characters
  indulge in shocking and at times almost self-destructive behavior but
  Solondz never condescends to his characters. They are all troubled and
  neurotic in very human ways.

          I hesitate to try to sum up the plot for two reasons: it is complicated
  and interwoven and, more importantly, I do not want to remove the shock
  value from the film. What I can say is that this is consistently the
  best-acted ensemble piece I've seen this year. Solondz has taken actors
  and in many cases cast against type, drawing some of their finest work.
  Even small roles like those of Jon Lovitz and Marla Maples (who knew?)
  are perfect. Of the leads, Laura Flynn Boyle has perhaps the least
  dimensional of them but she manages to find the appropriately brittle
  tone that masks her insecurities. Cynthia Stevenson has never been
  better as Trish and Jane Adams evolves into a full-fledged star with
  this film. As the perennial loser Joy, Ms. Adams brings an ethereal
  quality to the role that tempers the terrible things that happen to her.
  Old pros like Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Ashley and Louise Lasser also
  contribute sharp characterizations. Philip Seymour Hoffman is strong as
  the telephone caller, although the character seemed to me not that far
  from the pitiful one he played in
BOOGIE NIGHTS. In fact, it's not much
  of a stretch to see Allen as a grown-up version of Scotty. Camryn
  Manheim as his even more pathetic neighbor shows her range. Fans of
  TV's
THE PRACTICE who see this film will never look at her in quite
  the same way. As he demonstrated with his first film, Solondz has a way
  with young actors. Here Rufus Read as Billy is a marvel. He personifies
  pre-pubescent adolescence and the scenes he shares with his father
  where they frankly discuss sex are some of the most fascinating in the
  picture. While they are not as touching as those between Kris
  Kristofferson and Leelee Sobieski in
A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES,
  they are not meant to be. There is a level of creepiness in them, partly
  because the audience is clued into Bill Maplewood's psyche. Which brings
  me to the film's most astonishing performance, that of Dylan Baker. A
  fine stage actor who spent a season on ABC's
MURDER ONE, Baker has
  an Everyman quality. He's not movie-star handsome or character actor ugly,
  but ordinary. And therein lies the power of his performance. He could be
  the suburban guy next door and your worst nightmare.

          HAPPINESS is one of those films that washes over you as you watch
  it and leaves you stunned. There are things that one can pick apart, as
  I already pointed out, Solondz isn't fully comfortable with structure and
  there are a few scenes that were extraneous. Still, this is a motion picture
  that cries out for dissection and discussion. As a writer and director,
  Solondz has staked his claim examining the underbelly of suburbia. He
  has grown exponentially as an artist since his first feature and
  has managed to avoid the sophomore curse. What he does next will
  hopefully build on the groundwork laid by this film. With his
  extraordinary gifts, he should be more than up to the challenge.



                          
Rating:           B
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.