Tag Archives: Todd Solondz

CAPSULE: HAPPINESS (1998)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dylan Baker, , Cynthia Stevenson, , , , Louise Lasser

PLOT: An examination of the lives of three sisters, their extended families, and their neighbors reveals an elaborate network of secrets, sickness, perversion, and chronic unhappiness.

Still from Happiness (1998)

COMMENTS: Happiness presents a challenge to reviewers, but as difficult as is to write about, it’s not half as hard as it is to watch. Filled with reference to rape and pedophilia, along with near-constant mental cruelty and depression, the movie is one long trigger warning. Happiness doesn’t hold back; it always “goes there.” Side characters who initially seem like they might be oases of sanity and kindness turn out to be just as rotten inside as the principals. It is, technically, a black comedy, but the few grim jokes only highlight the nightmarishness of the character’s existence. The ironies only start with the title, a main character named “Joy,” and a soundtrack of schmaltzy soft-rock including Barry Manilow, Air Supply, and a version of “You Light Up My Life” performed by a Russian cabbie on the make. This is one dark movie.

With those warnings out of the way, the “must see” rating is warranted, for those with just a little bit of courage. Happiness is masterfully manipulative, totally assured in its execution, and totally ruthless in its worldview. The script is wicked and nuanced, the actors expert in nailing the difficult tone. It is a triumph of fearless cynicism; and yet, while it clearly hates its characters, it also oddly empathizes with them. They are allowed to feel guilt, suffering for their sins, while simultaneously being powerless to change their own destructive behaviors. This makes the movie as sad as it is scathing.

Happiness‘ alchemical majesty comes from successfully mixing strong emotions that should be incompatible. It’s not just the paring of comedy with dark situations. In truth, the movie isn’t all that funny, although it has a couple of conventional comedy moments (such as the psychiatrist zoning out while his patient complains that people find him boring, or Joy becoming a “scab” at an ESL program). Happiness‘ brand of bone-dry humor is really a precursor to contemporary anti-comedy, exemplified by an exchange between sisters Helen (Boyle) and Joy (Adams) that could be the movie’s comic manifesto. After Joy makes an innocent comment that Helen thinks is stupid, the elder sister bursts out in mock laughter, then consoles the younger: “Don’t worry,” she hisses, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you.” Her sister’s confused response: “But I’m not laughing.”

Even more than its juxtaposition of humor and horror, the film succeeds by mixing its meanness with sorrow: Dylan Baker’s climactic tear-stained confession is simultaneously bone-chilling and heartrending. (The performances are uniformly excellent, but it seems odd that standout Baker never landed another major role: playing a child molester must be career suicide in Hollywood.) Happiness is, as noted, a very sad movie.

Is it a weird movie? I’d say no, although it is a unique one. Its unflinchingly downbeat, relentlessly derisive tone puts it well outside of mainstream entertainment. To the extent that we might claim it for the weird, it’s only due to its often exaggerated nature. Scenes play as the tiniest bit unreal: Bill’s conversations with his pre-adolescent son are perverted parodies of “Leave it to Beaver” chats. Catty conversations between the sisters are franker and more biting than they would be in reality. Horrible things are said in deadpan, and received with ambiguous expressions suggesting a mixture of alarm and bamboozlement. Detached artifice is pierced by real human emotion. That is not, in my mind, enough to get Happiness all the way to “weird” (though it certainly passes the “offbeat” marker); but at least I can see what the movie’s proponents are talking about.

Strangely, although it’s remembered by everyone who saw it and critically acclaimed, at the present time Happiness is nearly unobtainable. No streamer seems brave enough to take it on, the DVD has gone out of print, and it has never been issued on Blu-ray. I wouldn’t expect this sad situation to last forever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… funny, sad, sincere, ugly, tough, weird, occasionally horrifying.”–Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine, 2016 reassessment

(This movie was nominated for review by “CheapSwillBill” who commented “A list of weird movies that doesn’t mention Happiness? That’s weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: PALINDROMES (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Todd Solondz

FEATURING: , Richard Masur, , Sharon Wilkins

PLOT: A teenager falls in with a group of anti-abortionists in her quest to become pregnant.

Still from Palindromes (2004)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As if the plot isn’t off-beat enough, Palindromes‘s teenage porotagonist is played by a variety of actors of different ages, sizes, races, and even genders.

COMMENTS: The standout feature of Palindromes is the unorthodox casting of a series of different actresses (and one actor) in the role of Aviva Victor. The variety of thespians allows Solondz to express the evolution of Aviva’s self-image, physically reflecting changes in her emotional state during the movie. When we first meet Aviva, she is played by a young African-American girl who wears her emotions on her sleeves and in her facial expressions. She is the only child to middle class parents (Barkin and Masur) living in an anonymous suburb in the Northeast United States. Horrified at the probable suicide of her cousin Dawn and alienated by the material nature of her mother’s love, Aviva becomes obsessed with the idea of having lots of babies to ensure she has someone to love her. Then, as a Caucasian brunette in her early teens, she has an ill-advised encounter with the son of a family friend, and gets pregnant. As a reedy, red-haired, slightly older girl, she strenuously resists but eventually accedes to getting an abortion. As a more confident and more attractive brunette, she runs away with the help of a truck driver, with whom she has sex in the hopes of once again getting pregnant. Abandoned by the truck driver, she wanders through wilderness in the shape of a teenage boy and then is discovered—now as a large, older African–American woman—by the driven and very Christian Mama Sunshine, who runs an orphanage for children with medical infirmities. Here Aviva is least like herself: in a completely alien environment, she has to lie about her name and her past to fit in, and her self-doubt and anxiety are apparent in her magnified size, awkward movement, and change in race. The plot unfolds from there involving more pedophilia, a quest to assassinate the doctor who aborted her fetus, and a shootout in room 11 of a seedy motel, with Aviva switching from shape to shape, becoming more assertive and mature. At the point where she feels most grown-up, she returns to her family as a world-weary, bedraggled 20-something waif (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She holds her own in an existential debate with her older cousin, Mark, and easily wins arguments with her parents. But, as the title of the movie suggests, things come around: Aviva meets up with the boy who got her pregnant to begin with, reverts mentally through the chain of actors who have portrayed her, until she is once again the vulnerable, out-of-place, emotionally needy little black girl. As seductive as the message is that everything eventually returns to its beginning state, palindrome-like, some things in the film are irreversible: death, certain operations, and murder among them. In the end, it’s these things that will eventually shape the person Aviva will eventually become, but she’s not yet become them yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes this strange story even stranger is Aviva is played by eight different performers… Solondz constructs a deadpan sheltering bubble around his film, thereby defusing most of the issues he raises. It’s all one Warholian shrug. Still, ‘Palindromes’ is unlike anything you’ve seen at the movies.”–Bob Longino, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (contemporaneous)