A lot of people like to watch Jerry Springer’s TV talk show because of its freak show qualities. A person can sit comfortably at home, confident in the fact that he is superior to those bizarre people broadcasting their problems to the nation. But does this superiority complex have a basis in reality or is it mere illusion?
Either way, Todd Solondz’s new film, Happiness, should do something to shake people out of their complacency. This new film explores the inner lives of a number of ordinary people, revealing a core of deep emptiness and sadness, exposing the disturbing and pathetic things people do to feel better about themselves. And it’s a comedy. That’s the important part. Like There’s Something About Mary, Happiness presents amazingly disgusting material with such finesse that you can’t help but laugh. And unlike that summer hit, you might also find yourself deeply touched as well.
Todd Solondz is the independent filmmaker who also made Welcome to the Dollhouse, a similarly black comedy about a nerdish seventh-grade girl isolated from her family and friends. It won some awards and overall was fairly good, but Happiness shows that Solondz has come a long way. His new film finds him much more confident in his abilities as both writer and director, and the film is tighter and more intensely funny and tragic.
Happiness has a large and talented ensemble cast, and is loosely structured around the lives of three sisters, as well as various family members and people they encounter in daily life. The characters’ stories vary a great deal; some are more compelling than others. For example, Lara Flynn Boyle of Twin Peaks fame doesn’t have much to do as a successful but despairing writer. However, the story of her neighbor, a lonely, unattractive man who makes obscene phone calls (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman from Boogie Nights and Scent of a Woman), is much more interestingly written and beautifully acted. The strong cast also includes Jane Adams and Cynthia Stevenson as the other two sisters, plus Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Camryn Manheim and everyone’s favorite loser, Jon Lovitz. Solondz also shows off his skill in directing children: Rufus Reed is shockingly good as one of the characters’ sons.
The most fascinating character in the movie, in my mind, is Dylan Baker’s Bill Maplewood, outwardly a perfectly ordinary psychiatrist, husband and father. Everything in his life is fine…except that he’s also a homosexual pedophile. What’s so intriguing about his character is that he’s not a monster. He’s a perfectly nice guy, who just happens to have hideous urges. The movie doesn’t try to make excuses for him or blame his illness on some kind of chidhood trauma; he is instead presented as pedophiles most likely really are: otherwise ordinary people covering up their inner lives with a mask of normalcy. Think about that the next time you’re waiting in line behind a stranger at the supermarket.
If a movie about pedophilia and obscene phone calls doesn’t sound strong enough for you, don’t worry: there’s also suicide, masturbation, rape, murder and dismemberment. And, as I said before, it’s all pretty funny, in a shocking, thank-God-it’s-only-a-movie kind of way. Because of this strong subject matter, however, Happiness was doomed to an NC-17 rating, and as a result quickly was dropped by its original distributor, October Films, under pressure fromits parent company, Universal Studios (owned by Seagram’s, Inc., chaired by Williams’s own Edgar Bronfman Jr.). The problem is that the independent film world is becoming less independent and more corporate all the time, as the big studios attempt to get a piece of the profits small-scale films make.
Fortunately, Happiness is out there anyway to amuse and shock us. The film is somewhat uneven and rambling, but overall it’s quite compelling, and builds to a devastating conclusion. Happiness shows modern society composed of lonely, deluded people who are subject to their private demons and live phony lives. But then, don’t we all have our little secrets?