If you want to have your mind blown cinematically, do yourself a favour and track down a copy of Todd Solondz’s 1998 independent classic “Happiness” starring – among others – the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara (also now deceased), Lara Flynn Boyle, Jon Lovitz, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser and Jane Adams.
Don’t be fooled by the title (which is ironic), this is one of the most disturbing, brilliant and darkly funny films you will ever see.
In the style of other great ensemble cast films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Happiness follows the intertwining stories of an eclectic band of misfits, losers, perverts, loners and dreamers set against the backdrop of modern American life with its condos, office cubicles and supposedly “happy” family homes.
I watched it twice in 1998, when it first came out. The second time I dragged some friends along and I recall some of them swore they’d never forgive me – it’s that kind of movie.
Then, after reading about the making of Happiness in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which chronicled the independent film era (movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction), I felt compelled to watch it again.
It was pretty hard to find it online – the film has slipped somewhat into obscurity. But with a bit of perseverance I finally tracked a bootleg version* and watched it again, astounded once again by its originality as I was 22 years ago.
Among the highlights of the film, is the brilliant performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role you will never forget.
He plays the pivotal character of Allen, an overweight and deeply unhappy office worker whose sexual frustrations and inability to talk to women (“I have nothing to talk about. I’m boring,” he tells his therapist) has transformed into a penchant for making obscene phone calls to single woman he finds in the telephone directory.
This is a central and recurring theme of Happiness – the extraordinary/unspeakable things supposedly ordinary people do behind close doors, when nobody is watching.
(Another key character, Allen’s dowdy and desperately lonely neighbour Kristina (Camryn Manheim) confesses to murder and dismemberment over a chocolate fudge sundae with strawberry ice-cream.)
While Allen may be revolting in many aspects, Solondz treats him and other unsavoury and sad characters in the film with great empathy, recognising that people are not just one shade of colour. Allen can also be kind, comforting and understanding – he just needs to find the right woman!
Allen shares his apartment block and often the lift with the glamourous, but vacuous author Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) one of three sisters whose stories are also told in Happiness.
Helen bemoans the inherent phoniness in her writing -“If only I’d been raped as a child” she moans ridiculously as she longs for some authentically awful experience.
These awful experiences rain down on her younger sister, the naive and sweet guitar-playing Joy (Jane Adams) despite Joy’s best efforts to be a good and useful human being.
The first of these humiliations play out in the brilliant opening scene of the film, where Joy is left devastated by her date Andy (played by the comic Jon Lovitz in a great cameo) after she rejects him as a romantic partner.
Andy gives Joy an expensive gift, but then angrily snatches it back telling her it’s for the girl who loves him for who he is – he just wanted to show her what she is missing out on.
Andy: “…you think I’m shit? Well, you’re wrong, ’cause I’m champagne, and you’re shit. Until the day you die, you, not me, will always be shit.“
The third sister is mother hen Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) who believes she is living the life her unhappily single sister Joy can only dream of.
All dimples and smiles, Trish’s near perfect life is centered around her solid marriage to softly-spoken therapist Dr Bill Maplewood ( Dylan Baker in a devastating brilliant performance) and the home they have made in a big double story house filled with three busy young children.
However, Bill, whose patients include the masturbatory Allen, is not quite the wholesome family man and tender father figure his wife and the world thinks he is. He’s a craven pedophile with an uncontrollable lust for young boys around the age of his eldest son Billy, who just happens to be enduring the trials of puberty and his inability to ejaculate (“Dad, when will I cum?”).
In one of the early scenes in the film, we see Bill drive to a convenience store on the way home, purchase a teen magazine from the shelf and then vigorously pleasure himself in the backseat of his sedan as he flips through the images.
We also meet Helen, Joy and Trish’s feuding parents, unhappy Lenny (played by the gravely-voiced veteran character actor Ben Gazzara) and his neurotic wife Mona (another movie veteran Louise Lasser) who share a luxurious condo.
Lenny wants out of the marriage, but insists there is no one else. He just wants to be left alone.
Mona’s frustrations boil over into one of the funniest (and tragic) lines of the film:
“It’s OK. I’m not dumb. Things happen. I’ll get over it. I just wish you had done this 20 years ago. NOW I’LL HAVE TO GET ANOTHER FUCKING FACE LIFT.”
Black humour is a constant throughout the film, often accompanying the most excruciating and humiliating moments.
But, he doesn’t use humour just to break the tension, nor does he use it to mock or belittle the character’s painful experiences. For Solondz, humour is the flipside of what is so sad about the characters he depicts.
“It’s often hard for me to separate what I find so sad from what I find so funny. There’s a kind of poignancy for me…things that I am very moved by I find funny.”
I think this is a fundamental truism (as seen in many great Woody Allen movies, especially Crimes & Misdemeanours). If you don’t agree with this premise, you’ll probably hate Happiness.
Solondz goes on to say: “ I didn’t know if people would laugh or if they wouldn’t laugh, but it didn’t matter. I always believe that however [the audience] felt they would listening to what is going on…that you were seeing something you hadn’t seen before…things that are the most deeply personal are discussed in the most open and devastating way ultimately.
This is especially true of the film’s darkest character, Dr Bill Maplewood, who when confronted by his eldest son Billy about his terrible crimes, confesses in complete honesty
The scene which occurs on the couch in the family’s living room is one of the most devastating father and son moments ever depicted in a movie. Bill, for all his horrendous faults cannot lie to his son, nor will he harm him, despite his uncontrollable proclivities.
Asked by Billy if he would do to him, what he did to his friends (rape them), Bill replies: “No. I’d jerk off instead”.
As the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Happiness: In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.”
Happiness is ultimately a film about the human condition in all its complexities, perversities, hidden layers and deep dark secrets.
It is in my humble opinion, a masterpiece (but not for everyone).
*To track down a version of Happiness, download the Russian social media app OK (trust me on this one). Login via your Facebook account and then simply search for Happiness on the app.