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Begrudging Happiness

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 OPINIONS









Begrudging Happiness  

by Rob Spillman  




Feel good family flick? Safe first date movie? With a title like
Happiness, you’d think it had “date” written all over it. As they

say in New Jersey, fuggetaboudit. After subjecting yourself to
Jersey-native Todd Solondz’s disturbing and bleak psychosexual drama you
won’t want to even go on a date, much less think about sex, for days,
maybe even months. Unless of course you’re a joyless masochist with a
jones for exquisite loneliness and alienation, in which case grab the
center aisle and savor the pain.


    

Solondz’s first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was a dark little
satiric gem about a bullied seventh grader coming of age in the wasteland
of New Jersey suburbia. The film had a sharp misanthropic edge, but there
was real humanity on the screen, and even a glimmer of hope — you could
imagine the snotty little heroine surviving the torment of being
different in McNeighborhoodland and maybe even someday coming back to
satirize her hometown on film.


    

Happiness, however, is unremittingly misanthropic, and only
occasionally sick-funny, with each and every character doomed to a
horrible, unfulfilled, alienated, empty life. The loose framework of a
plot is something of a dyspeptic Hannah and Her Sisters, but in
this case, it’s less about romantic mishaps than the sisters’ failures
and dysfunctions, as well as those of their friends, neighbors and
estranged parents. The eldest sister, Trish, is a stereotypical suburban
mom, complete with minivan and two point five kids, a hateful cardboard
cutout who continuously gloats, “I have it all.” Also snipped from the
recycling pile is Helen, a very successful, empty poetess who has built a
career on faux confessional poetry about rape, who despite all her lovers
and success hungers for true horror. Helen, played to vapid perfection by
Lara Flynn Boyle (Is she acting?), has tons of lovers, a fabulous career,
gets calls “from Salaman in London” and makes quips like, “People don’t
understand why I live in New Jersey. I live in a state of irony.” Irony
is a dangerous, dispassionate state — one that rarely fuels great art,
and that Solondz himself can’t seem to shake.


    

The youngest sister is Joy, a failed folk singer with the heart of gold.
For the temerity of attempting to find happiness (and even sing about

it), Solondz reserves special horrors for Joy. When she gently dumps a
boyfriend (a surprisingly convincing Jon Lovitz), he calls her shit, then
later kills himself; when she tries to teach immigrants English, they
revolt against her; one of her students, a Russian cabbie, then seduces
her and robs her blind and on top of that she is beaten up by the
Russian’s girlfriend. When she is expecting a phone call from a blind
date, she instead gets a call from a masher, a sadly sinister and sweaty
office drone who is obsessed with her sister Helen.


    

When the sisters get together their interactions are as stilted
cinematically as they are socially. The more interesting characters are
embroiled in the numerous side plots, like the story of the Kafkaesque
office drone, an overweight mouth-breather who stumbles through each day
as if he were taking a space walk, and who becomes further untethered
when Helen starts returning his obscene phone calls. Adding to the
drone’s state of confusion is another neighbor, an overweight woman who
is obsessed with him. Over a hot fudge sundae she confides that she was
raped by their building’s doorman, whom she overpowered and killed, and
then “had to cut up . . .”


    

The most riveting sideplot, and the one which caused the original
distributor, October Films, to drop the film, involves Trish’s predatory
pedophile shrink husband. Emotionally and empathetically portrayed by
Dylan Baker, Dr. Maplewood is a super-square looking dad who drugs his
family (with dosed hot fudge sundaes) in order to rape his eleven
year-old son’s Little League teammate. Throughout the film Dr. Maplewood
and his son Billy have painful conversations about Billy’s inability to

come, and these tortured scenes only enhance the awfulness of the
violation Maplewood commits. Ironically, these difficult, believable
exchanges contain the only humanity in the entire film, the only occasion
where it is possible to feel any sense of real loss or tragedy.


    

For tragedy to work, you have to care about what happens to the players.
It doesn’t help that Solondz goes for the easy suburban putdowns, scoring
his suburban noir with schmaltzy music like “Mandy” and “You Light Up My
Life.” Sounds funny, but it’s cheap. Solondz seems to loath most of his
characters, especially the women, reserving a morsel of compassion for
the two most tragic: the pedophile and the masher. No one, however, has
the slightest chance for redemption. As a result Happiness is a
flat movie where the emotional trajectory goes from failure to failure
and disappointment to disappointment. His message is that the world is
going to shit on you, and if you try to find joy, you will be severely
punished.


    

While Happiness fails as art, it is still a movie worth seeing. It
has smatterings of smart, emotional dialogue, great performances from its
supporting cast, a seductive visual feel and a lush, almost suffocating
saturation of color (courtesy of Maryse Alberti, the cinematographer who
also shot Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine). But the reason so many
people are having intense conversations about Happiness is that no
one sticks his camera into unpleasantness like Solondz. And few young
directors are able to draw out such emotional, charged performances. A
few of the scenes are heart-breaking and unforgettable in the
cinema-verité style of Cassavettes. You can almost see a great
movie lurking under all the misanthropy and tangled plotlines. But it’s
as if Solondz didn’t trust his considerable talents. Instead of zooming
in and finding the humanity in dysfunctional suburbia, Solondz
continually pulls away and pie-creams his world of losers from afar.
While even pessimists among us discern a faint glow of humanity in the
struggle for happiness, Solondz glibly closes the door on its very
possibility.







©1998
Rob Spillman
and Nerve.com