Uh-oh, here comes that weirdo from high school that turns his eyelids inside out to freak you out. And now he's got a movie camera, casting sirector, best boy, and a cast of people more than willing to help him. That weirdo is Todd Solondz, and he's grown up since his eyelid turning days. Now he's a writer and director, and he's found new, more artworld acceptable ways to produce the same results, but without any net gain for his audience.
The structure of "Happiness" is a hell of a lot like a "Love Boat" episode where related and unrelated characters weave in and out of each other's lives. It is different in that on the "Love Boat," Captain Stubing never fucked Vicky, and Gopher was not a perverted crank caller -- at least on screen he wasn't. Also, the "Love Boat" had a resolution at the end.
At the center of "Happiness" is a very unhappy family. Mother, father and three daughters are all unhappy to the same degree, but in their own ways. Trish, played by Cynthia Stevenson, is the stereotypical bubbly surburban housewife who doesn't even realize how empty her life is. Claire (Lara Flynn Boyle) is the ultra-successful writer who is the epitome of cool, but when alone berates herself with self-doubt. And Joy is the youngest daughter who can't make anything of her life and is, despite her name, totally joyless and given to fits of crying. The mother and father (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), married forty years, are headed for Splitsville.
Each member of the family spreads out into the community where they encounter other people that are equally unhappy. The suburbanite housewife's husband (Dylan Baker) is a closet homosexual pedophile that drugs his friend's kids and then buttfucks them. The writer falls in love with the voice of her perverted, meatbeating crank-caller of a neighbor, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The youngest daughter falls in love with a Russian (Jared Harris) who is involved in an unhappy marriage.
Then, in a big surprise ending, everyone in the family winds up unhappy.
By nature, downbeat movies win big awards because the film festival assholes are afraid to admit they didn't get the point. (The only upbeat movies that win awards are about minorities overcoming obstacles, and that's because the judges are afraid to admit they secretly were rooting for the minorities to fail.) What if the judges said they didn't get it, and it turned out there was really something important there to be gotten? Then they'd look stupid and wouldn't get invited back.
I for one am not afraid to say I'm stupid and I didn't get it. Mr. Solondz, what the fuck are you trying to tell us?
In my little press package, Solondz is quospouts something about how, through this artsy little downer, he wanted to explore what drew people to the suburbs. But he isn't exploring shit here. He doesn't even try to because he's too busy being clever by showing variations on the same unhappiness, over and over and over, for 135 long minutes. Included are three masturbation scenes, which is two too many in any movie. Anything more than one is just jerk-off filler.
All Solondz really does is rag on targets as easy as the suburbs, poets and pedophiles. I'll bet my ass, and it's a good one, that there are happy people in the suburbs. I'm not so sure about poets and pedophiles, but they can't possibly be as bleak as Solondz make them out to be in his one note world.
The secretly unhappy housewife is a cliché as old as the "Stepford Wives." A sad character named Joy doesn't exactly qualify as clever. It's not even ironic because it's so Goddamn obvious. And the author filled with self-doubt and self-hatred? Gee,was Solondz peeking into the window of every writer in America? How else could he have discovered such a BIG secret?
So, dear reader, if you haven't already guessed, my big bitch is that there's nothing new here. Solondz just takes old themes about domestic unrest and dresses them up even more shocking and dark than usual to get our attention. It's a lot like the way Marilyn Manson does Alice Cooper. And me, I'll listen to my old worn out copy of "Billion Dollar Babies" before I'll buy that Manson freak's shit any day.
So, why three fingers, then? Because everything else about this film is really fucking good. Every performance, except for Lara "I'm in over my head" Flynn Boyle's comes across as nearly perfect.
Hoffman as the pervert neighbor that wants to ram his dick through his neighbor and see come shoot out her mouth is just awesome. In fact, everything I've seen this guy in has made me cream my jeans. Hell, I'd pay to have him read me the Swedish penis enlarger ads out of the back of Juggs magazine, and I already have those memorized.
The explicit discussions of sex between the boy-loving dad and his son are so squirm-inducing that I rubbed a rash right into my ass. They also made me glad I learned about sex from a Mexican comic book and nt from my father.
It's just that the sum of the parts is a lot less. Next time,
if Solondz wants to tell me how awful the suburbs are, I'll give
him fifteen minutes and he won't be allowed to repeat himself.
Then I'll give him the other two hours to tell me a story, and
it better have a beginning and an end.