on 9 November 2011
Never before has a film addressed "coming of age" quite so literally.
This is a dark, dark comedy: the sort of thing that might emanate from the deepest circle of the hell of Woody Allen's nightmares. The titular happiness, in case you were wondering, is colossally ironic. This is a story of loosely related individuals - more loosely related than you'd expect given most relations are of the blood or marital sort - all of whom are profoundly at odds with themselves and their environment. Much of their collected oddness manifests itself in sexual dysfunction of one sort or another, but of a far deeper and sicker kind than is commonly found in Woody Allen's material. Indeed, by comparison Allen's neuroticism seems positively winsome.
These people are deeply, darkly, fatally neurotic: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to revel in these kinds of parts, an overweight, greasy, bespectacled misogynist who has unspeakable fantasies, fantasies which he nonetheless brazenly speaks about, to his shrink and to his victims, through inept crank calls. His shrink Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) is a paedophile. Maplewood is married to Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) a woman whose hi-tensile smugness betrays a fundamental insecurity about her place in the world. Trish doesn't know of, but we suspect she may fear for, her husband's ghastly proclivities. Trish has two sisters who, in turn, field Allen's crank calls, and seem to enjoy them. The sisters' parents, holed up in a Florida condo, see their Marriage as a loveless contractual bind.
In the middle of it all is a teenaged boy, Timmy (Justin Elvin), Trish and Bill's son, who is fruitlessly willing on the onset of his own puberty, providing his father a running commentary. His father darkly enjoys.
Could the set-up be any more neurotic?
The narrative gradually displaces itself from early focus on Allen towards the Bill, at which point whatever tacky residue of humour the film had retained is jettisoned and we are let into the paedophile's modus operandi. From there, for thirty minutes, Happiness is unrelentingly grim. Relief comes in the form of the travails of the third sister Joy (Jane Adams), a chronically frustrated spinster, who has stumbled into the arms of a Russian taxi driver (Jared Harris), whom we are invited to like for his uncluttered and direct approach to life, but who also turns out to be a monstrous pig.
The film has as its climax a harrowing exchange between Timmy and his father, now exposed as a paedophile, in which Timmy interrogates Bill about his sexual proclivities and his father answers him calmly and directly. It really is a striking sequence, but as with much of the film, it is thoroughly contrived.
These characters are archetypes we recognise as being profoundly American. Had the film been located anywhere else, the screenplay could would have seemed utterly implausible: you just can't imagine Europeans, let alone anyone else, being this self-involved.
Black humour returns at a stroke in the final scene, in a scene which will have you bent over in mirth or nausea depending on your, well, taste for such things. It seems a little bit of a cheap shot, though that's clearly not how Timmy will have felt about it.
on 14 August 2005
Happiness. What a strange title for a film that is anything but!
It's one of those films that is almost impossible to sum up. It's really a long collection of short interconnecting sketches that detail the personal quirks of a dozen or so characters and the skeletons in their closets they'd probably wouldn't want us to know about.
The main thread of the plot is the three Jordan sisters who are all dealing with their own individual crisis. Firstly we meet Joy, who is having dinner with the boyfriend she's just dumped. Joy is insecure, vulnerable, naive and a little goofy. When Andy, her ex-boyfriend, commits suicide days later and she receives a nasty phone call from Andy's mother, she quits her job and starts to teach immigrants English, only to fall for Russian romantic Vlad, whose partner attacks poor Joy in the staff room when she finds out.
We then meet Allen who is seeing a therapist about his obsession with Helen his neighbour. Helen is one of the Jordan sisters and Allen's therapist is married to the other one, (with us so far?) Allen starts to make dirty phone calls to Helen, but to his amazement Helen actually enjoys them, which just doesn't compute with sad lonely Allen. He has his own problems anyway with his other neighbour, Kristina.
Perhaps the most controversial storyline is concerning the final sister, Trish. As we've said she married to Bill the therapist, but what Trish doesn't know is that Bill is a secret paedophile who secretly drugs his family to take advantage of his son's sleep-over friend. What makes this section even harder to get our heads around is that in every other way Bill is a regular likeable chap, some of the heart to hearts he has with his own son are very tender and sweet, and yet here is a man who represents possibly every parents' worst nightmare.
The film can be laugh out loud funny, sentimental and sometimes quite sickening. There are tender moments and vile moments and even some heartbreaking moments. The performances are to a man absolutely perfect and although I'm not going to single out anyone for special mention all the actors put in totally believable performances and capture you from the first scene onwards.
It's not easy viewing sometimes and there are going to be some viewers who find this to be unwatchable in parts. But that all said it is clever, singular and challenging.
on 10 May 2000
This is my favourite film and, if you open your mind just a little bit, you will be greatly rewarded.
Yes, this movie contains child rape, murder, masturbation, paeodophelia etc. but the film is as masterful as it is because it already assumes the audience knows that these things are bad. This is a rare film that will not preach to your "inner conscience" and respects its' audience.
An connecting tale of family disfunction and sexual inadequacy all joined Short Cuts/ Magnolia/ Pulp Fiction style by one or two events is centrally about three daughters, one a terminally smiling but incredibly unfulfilled social worker (Jane Adams), another an unknowing housewife (Cynthia Stevenson) to a paeodophile and the "succesful" one, a beautiful poet with many sexual conquests but feels emotionally empty (Lara Flynn Boyle) and their parents' (Ben Gazzera and Louise Lasser) breakdown of a thirty-year marriage. The film shows all of these (outwardly) normal people, yet many other detailed and brilliant characters, on their search for fulfilment, love and happiness.
Todd Solondz's incredibly ambitious and emotially shattering third film (see also his last: Welcome to the Dollhouse, almost perfect) is a masterpiece, not only of genius scriptwriting that makes you want to laugh, scream, cry and burn the film all in a single line, but also some of the most beautifully underplayed direction, unlike Sam Mendes' recent Oscar winning helming. The relationships are perfectly portayed with the ending scene between Bill, the paeodophile, and his betrayed son one of the most heart wrenching in cinema history.
The acting is completely perfect. From Jon Lovitz's (yes, Jon Lovitz) initially confusing breakdown at the outset to the now eponymous Phillip Seymour Hoffman's phone sex pervert and Dylan Baker's psychiatrist paeodophile, every one would, in a perfect world, take home Oscars.
Instances in this film may make you want to stop watching and damn the film for filth. Don't. This is one of few masterpieces to come out of America in the last decade. Many will not have the stomach for anything quite so perverse but it simply demands to be seen. Purely unmissable.
on 10 December 2007
This film is indeed marvelous. Todd Solondz combines really absurd situations and embarrassing moments -some of which most of us do encounter in daily life and some we hopefully won't- with serious issues. Thus, this film provides not only a very high degree of entertainment -Solondz' sense for irony is exceptional-, it gives you a critical view on society without judging or condemning or forcing you to think one way or the other. I am genuinely impressed by Happiness and its cast full of great actors.
It is littered with an assortment of characters that seem to have sexual fetishes and perversions of some sort. Solondz explores some dark subjects and you would think this would make the film harsh and difficult to watch, but it holds your attention throughout mainly because of the excellent performances on show, especially from Dylan Baker as a respected doctor who holds a terrible secret, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obscene phone-caller. He is so incredibly versatile - he successfully made my skin crawl here. Before I even go further the very first scene is probably the best work John Lovitz has ever done. This movie looks dead on at some of the most awkward and horrific things in American culture, but never ever ever tells you or suggests to you what you should think or feel, the way most films do. John's Speech will blow you away. Jane Adams, who has a calamitous love life and plays the social reject of three dysfunctional sisters, does a wonderful job in role her facial expressions will get you going. My personal favorite was Cynthia Stevenson as one of those typical housewives with 2.5 kids and a carpool. Her character was so obnoxious, superficial and condescending - she clearly did a wonderful job. I was also a huge fan of Camryn Manheim (what a twist!), Lara Flynn Boyle (she gives new meaning to the role of the phony snob), Elizabeth Ashley, and Molly Shannon's cameo which was HYSTERICAL. And the child actors...simply brilliant and such difficult material. The film's most powerful and emotional scene is towards the end when Baker's character has a trying conversation with his son.
I think it is fair to say that anyone watching this film can identify with at LEAST one of the so-called 'sicknesses' of the characters, therefore, it is the look in to the dark recesses of their own minds that makes them so uncomfortable. The world is a messed up place, and we all contribute to that in our own fashion, some more than others, but nevertheless, we all do, because our lives all clash with one another at some point. The best we can do is to face it and deal with it, not act as though we are separate from it! I suppose what I am trying to say is that this work is an important, unflinching look at the REAL reality in this world and, like it or not, it does affect you in one way or another, so you might as well face up to it by identifying with this film!
on 5 February 2013
I honestly never write reviews, although I feel like sharing my opinion about this movie.
First of all, the dvd arrived within 2 days and everything was great. As this movie was a suggestion and as I am a great fan of Philipp Seymour Hoffman, I ordered it without having a further look at the synopsis.
It starts off in a quite deliberating and comical mood, although right from the start one can figure that it is not just another independent movie... I won't spoil the ending, although it was really really hard to watch for me... Do you know that feeling when you see something disgusting or horrible although you actually can't stop staring? Well that's how I felt during the whole 2 1/2 hours... I was torn between yelling at the screen, feeling pity and the most deepest disgust I have ever felt for any movie figure. (I'm talking about the dear father) I believe the striking part about this film is simply that it harshly directs the bitter truth we are all aware off, although we try to ignore and ban it from our society. ( pedophilia)
I think it is a very great movie, although I would never watch it again. I must admit that I react very sensitive to harsh movies, however I am also a film student, so I kind of have seen any kinds of "cruel" movies. Well I thought I did... This movie definitely set new limits to direct, tactile and provocative movies, portraying the brutal reality of different characters, failing the American dream. I was depressed for 2 days after watching this, so please have a drink right beside you when you watch it, you'll need it!
Apart from that, one should definitely see the movie, as the actors are breathtakingly convincing and extravagant. A must-see, but for me personally only once, I never want to feel again, like I did after this movie! But it definitely opens up your eyes.
I can totally understand the very different approaches and meaning to the film, as it is not an easy one to digest... Just watch it and decide for yourself!
Happiness probably starts with the best break up scene in the movies, it’s the kind of thing most people would love to do to the ‘other half’. It’s basically the story of three divergent sisters and the people and relationships going on around them. Slow to get into and very easy to give up on, it takes determination to get through the first half hour or so, but stick with it and you could soon find yourself drawn into this macabre world of the taboo.
Most films are escapist, they’re there simply to entertain. Solondz’ films are not easy to watch and at times are extremely cringe worthy, not the kind you’d want to watch with the kids or grandma [unless you’re as dysfunctional as the films characters] for they make us think about things we don’t want to think about. Happiness deals with paedophilia, masturbation, homosexuality, rape, you name it, it probably has it in there somewhere, poking an irreverent look at middle suburbia and its dualistic standards. Despite the subject matter you could easily be forgiven if you expect this to be pornographic in content, but it isn’t. What it is, is disturbing, it's often sad and there are some very frank discussions between youngsters and parents that you might find unsettling,
The entire film is a bit like a plate of spaghetti. You pick up a strand and it intertwines with others, yet you can follow it to the end. Seemingly random comments early on turn out to be connected to the storyline elsewhere. It’s not a fast film, in fact it’s often quite slow and borders on becoming boring, but somehow you end up watching just to see where it ends up. The film isn’t funny, but does have dark humour in places.
Despite having a huge cast of familiar faces, this film didn’t get to me as much as 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' or 'Palindromes' did. I found this much more commercial in tone. I can’t say it’s a must see, but it does tend to get compulsive as the film progresses.
on 4 July 2010
Though told mainly from the viewpoint of Joy, `Happiness' is essentially the story of three sisters and the characters that surround their lives.
Helen is a successful and arrogant writer of sexually explicit fiction who boasts to journalists of wanting to know what it is like to be raped and abused, but deep down sees her own work as shallow and exploitative.
Trish is a middle class housewife and mother of three, happily married to psychiatrist Bill and on the surface seems to have the perfect life, except one thing, Bill is highly manipulative and active paedophile who preys on young boys.
Joy, the youngest of the sisters, is a sensitive and sweet natured woman who always seems to be unlucky in love and who always manages to get on the wrong side of everyone she meets. After breaking up with a man she dated at work he responds with a malicious and vitriolic rant and then commits suicide a few days later. In an attempt to make a new start she decides to work as an English teacher at an immigrant education center, where she is despised by her students and fellow workers for crossing the picket line during an ongoing teachers strike. The only person who is kind to her is a Russian student named Valdimir who seduces her in order to rob her of her possessions.
I have to admit I bought the DVD of Happiness on impulse about seven years ago and thought it was so bad I switched it off only 20 minutes in and sold it the next day. Since then I've rediscovered the films of Todd Solondz, first with `Welcome To The Dollhouse', then `Palindromes' and then `Storytelling'. And though I through loved `Welcome To The Dollhouse', it was only after watching `Palindromes' that I got what Solondz is trying to do via film. As well creating great characters and stories, Solondz's subversive skill is to create scenarios which at first make you laugh then sharply stab your conscience when you realise your laughing at the most appalling of situations, and his second film `Happiness' is without doubt the most potent with this ability and as a film is thoroughly captivating.
Be warned though, this is a film which in parts is incredibly uncomfortable to watch and often offensive and if you've not experienced a Todd Solondz film before you might be better off trying out `Welcome To The Dollhouse' and `Palindromes' first. But if you like independent cinema and are not easily offended then this is an outstanding film.
on 18 May 2010
Many reviewers seem to approach discussion of a Todd Solondz film as they might a visit to the zoo, or a documentary by National Geographic. The lives of the protagonists, usually lonely, frequently dysfunctional, always compromised, are addressed with seemingly complete detachment. They are viewed with a mixture of dim incomprehension, cruel amusement, and sordid curiosity, but almost always as something completely alien. My enjoyment of more than one Solondz film I've gone to watch at the pictures has been marred by the callow laughter of people who seem to have gone solely to feel superior to the characters.
For me Solondz has always put an all too recognisable reality on screen. From the first time I watched Welcome To The Dollhouse I always saw him as a champion of the misunderstood, the disenfranchised and downtrodden. He is brutally honest regarding the extent of his characters' flaws (which here extend to murder, marital deceit, emotional detachment, domestic violence and all kinds of sexual abuse) but always even-handed and deeply compassionate. One of the best things a film can do is make you feel less alone, and Happiness was as important to me as an angry young man as the lyrics of Richey James and the novels of George Orwell.
One of the other great things a film can do is change the way you think: I can vivdly remember someone in a university philosophy class saying they believed in capital punishment until they saw Dead Man Walking. I really think in it's presentation of characters with variant desires Happiness has the power to make people question some of their presumptions, and that can only be applauded.
The other thing I would like to add is although most descriptions of the film make it sound something of an ordeal, it has, as another reviewer has pointed out, many uplifting, redemptive moments. It is also very funny. Not in a horrible, laugh at others misfortune kind of way, but there's some tremendous comedy of social embarrassment here that any fan of Woody Allen or Ricky Gervais should embrace. Solondz's mixture of bracing social satire and gross out guffaws though remains very much unique, the closest comparison I can think of would be Jonathan Swift. It's certainly true the film can be disturbing but I really think it is life changing and would implore you to give it a go.
on 31 December 2009
Happiness is a work of art. In the truest sense of the word. The best art is there to provide a response to life, to deal with human existence. The arts reach us on a very deep level - they speak to the emotional, feeling part of you, the part which logic and reason cannot affect. The best pieces of art always express something, give a message.
This is why I do not particularly care for many highly acclaimed films, such as The Godfather and The Dark Knight. I feel that, no matter how good the acting is, no matter how good the directing is, no matter how good the script is, films like The Godfather and The Dark Knight can ultimately be nothing more than entertainment. They give us complex, interesting narratives, but these do not deal with the problems of life, rather they take us away from the problems of life. They are escapist. While of course there is a need and a role for escapist films, the true cream of the crop are films which immerse us in reality, which examine human existence in all of its emotional intensity, and which perhaps help us deal with human existence. The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman, is a film such as this. Another film such as this is Happiness, by Todd Solondz.
I won't go into the plot in detail, because that would be going over what you already know for those who have seen it, and spoiling it for those who haven't. Let's just say it follows the three Jordan sisters of New Jersey; Trish, whose psychiatrist husband Bill is secretly a paedophile and budding child rapist; Helen, who is being stalked by the lonely, sex-obsessed Allen; and Joy, who gets a job teaching newly arrived immigrants in NYC, and starts an affair with one of them, only for him to emerge as a thief who is only after her money. There's also the sisters' parents, Lenny and Mona, who have retired to Florida and are now splitting up after decades of marriage.
Happiness strips reality bare. It shows us how the world really is, shocking us out of any cosy, bigoted notions about life and people which we might have.
The theme of Happiness ostensibly appears to be the idea that middle-class, suburban society is not what it seems; there is perversion lurking behind every door, and the perfect family man living next door to you could in fact be a paedophile and a rapist. As Bill says to Joe Grasso at one point in the film, "appearances can be deceptive." This is doubtless a genuine theme which Solondz wanted to express, but I feel that it goes deeper than this.
I think what Solondz was really trying to do in Happiness was to tear down our ideas about morality. In Happiness, people are shown as they really are, not divided off into the black and white realms of good and evil, as bigots tend to see people. Happiness twists normal ideas of good and bad beyond recognition. The most obvious example would be the character of Bill - he is a paedophile, but is shown not to be a monster but a caring father who is deeply tormented by his own urges. But the character of Allen is another good example - he may immediately strike us as a pervert, but he turns out to have a caring side, as shown when he gives Kristina a tissue and offers to take her out. Kristina is obsessed with Allen and is stalking him, just as Allen is himself stalking Helen - by showing a stalker WITH a stalker, Solondz shows us the relativity of morality, and one woman's stalker is another woman's stalking victim. The real world is not a black and white one of evil stalkers and good victims - it is much more complex, composed of subtle shades of grey. Kristina goes on to reveal to Allen that she killed Pedro, the doorman who raped her. When she asks Allen if they can still be friends, Allen says "I guess, yeah, I mean everyone has their, you know, their plusses and minuses." This reiterates the same theme of moral relativism - the world is not neatly divided into camps of good and evil, we're all on the same scale, and the most evil person in the world has good in them, just as the most good person in the world has evil in them. A final illustration: at one point Joy is on the phone to a man she thinks is a potential suitor, and she says "God you're just like me." At that moment, the screen splits to reveal that she is in fact talking to Allen, who is masturbating over their conversation. Joy has acknowledged that Allen is just like her. "Perverts" are not evil monsters who have nothing in common with "normal" people; they are, in fact, just the same when you get down to it.
Another theme in Happiness is that of determinism - the idea that people do not choose their actions, and they cannot therefore be held morally responsible for them. Confessing his paedophilia to his son Billy, Bill explains his actions by saying "I couldn't help myself", a line that has already be spoken by Kristina. And is it me, or does Billy look like a young Allen? Billy and Allen are also both obsessed with masturbating. Is Solondz saying that Billy has been turned into a pervert like Allen by the trauma of discovering his father's paedophilia? Whether determinism is right or wrong, it is undeniable that people are often forced into unpleasant situations by prior circumstances - so it is hard to impose judgement on them.
In Happiness, it in fact becomes IMPOSSIBLE to impose judgement on ANYONE. What Happiness ultimately presents to us is a total moral nihilism - good and bad do not exist, there is only happiness and (more often) suffering. It's not that there is perversion lurking behind every door, it's that there ARE no perverts. "Normality" and "perversion", "good" and "bad", do not refer to anything at all. Whether Solondz is correct about that or not, it is certainly a view of the world to which I can relate.
Now, it may be possible to criticise Happiness as being too pessimistic, as offering no solutions to the problems of life which it highlights, but the fact is that there often ARE no solutions. Happiness is a film which, above all, remains true to reality, and in reality, there are often no solutions to the great deal of suffering in life. So why watch it? I have already said that films about the problems of human existence are superior to escapist ones, and while that may be true of, say, The Seventh Seal, which ultimately gives a very optimistic message, why is it true of such a downbeat and depressing film as Happiness? The answer is that Happiness is, against all the odds, NOT depressing. Despite the unpleasant events with which it deals, Solondz makes it a very funny and humane film. I actually find it quite a therapeutic film to watch when I am down, in that it lays bare the problems of life and changes my perspective on them, helps me take a more philosophical attitude to things and a less judgemental attitude to other people. By dealing with the problems of life so candidly, the film Happiness is actually one of the few things that has come out of a human mind which actually transcends those problems. It is like an island of humour and wisdom in a world full of suffering and madness. Solondz said the following about his film Welcome to the Dollhouse, but it could apply equally well to Happiness: "The film is a comedy because that is the only way I know how to deal with excruciating torment, and I find something both funny and poignant in the struggle to endure humiliation."
on 12 June 2008
A very intelligent and funny movie. It addresses some very human weaknesses in a very uncompromising way. This is one of the rare movies that shows human behaviour without trying to conform to what is socially acceptable. The only thing missing is the narrative by David Attenborough.