Back when I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow, it became quickly apparent that one of Thomas Pynchon’s main goals (besides a masterful deconstruction of the moving parts of a novel) was to intentionally shock and offend his readers as much as humanly possible. Whether it was the scene involving coprophagia (sorry) that caused me to nearly projectile vomit while reading or the graphically depicted orgy sequence with in detail descriptions of threesomes, anal sex, cunnilingus, and fellatio as well as protagonist Slothrop having sex with a 13 year old, Thomas Pynchon wasn’t playing with kid gloves. I wouldn’t consider it exploitation or pornography any more than I would accuse Ulysses of being pornographic (despite the masturbation scene) because of Pynchon’s abilities as a writer. While I’ve sat through my fair share of dark and depraved films for this blog, I’ve yet to watch something quite as intentionally transgressive and subversively voyeuristic as Todd Solondz’s (Storytelling) jet black dramedy, Happiness. This film will only even be watchable by .01% of my reading audience, but if you can stomach it’s challenging material, you will be rewarded (perhaps the wrong word) with one of the most brutally honest and raw films I have ever seen.
Happiness is a series of inter-related tales about the many members of one family (and one of their neighbors). Billy Maplewood (Dylan Baker) is your seemingly ideal father, a psychiatrist with a beautiful house in a wonderful neighborhood with a loving wife (Cynthia Stevenson) and three darling children. However, Billy is also a pedophile and over the course of the film his dark fantasies cease to be imagined and become real. Joy Jordan (Hung‘s Jane Adams) is a struggling songwriter weaving her way out of dead-end jobs who hides her insecurities and depression behind an obviously false cheery facade. Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful writer who believes herself to be a fraud without an original or sincere bone in her body despite her success and suffers in her imagined loneliness. Allen (The Big Lebowski‘s Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a lonely computer geek who is paralyzed with fear over women and prank calls them with vicious sexual insults while masturbating. Over the course of this film, we see these people sink to the lowest that a person can fall (among other individuals) without the script or camera ever flinching away for a second.
Happiness won the National Board of Review’s Best Ensemble cast award for 1998, and it was well deserved. Philip Seymour Hoffman is potentially at his best since Capote. There was just a raw ferocity to it. It was muted and withdrawn because of Allen’s introvert tendencies, but Hoffman simply made the character appear like he was going to explode at any second and when he called these women, there was this terrifying misogynistic anger. It was just superb. Jane Adams is about as underrated an actress as they get, and she really sold the dichotomy between Joy’s cheerful appearance and her own personal anguish. The real star of the show was Dylan Baker. To make a character who methodically raped and molested two children and essentially offered to jerk off in front of his own son a sympathetic character is both a testament to Baker’s remarkably human performance but also to Todd Solondz’s script which showed this man as someone with an illness, not some inherently evil monster. Baker’s performance was just one of the most nuanced, courageous, and wrenching acting jobs I’ve seen since Jackie Earl Haley in Little Children.
The film is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, but manages to never feel like that because of the pure intensity of the script. While there was one story that never seemed to click with me (the story of Joy, Helen, and Billy’s wife’s mother), the rest of the film sunk its hooks into you and refused to let you look away (even when you desperately wanted to) because it was so sincere and authentic. Had this film been played any differently, it would have easily ventured into exploitation territory, but instead, the film is transformed into an abrasively intimate look into the lives of people who are searching for happiness but will never find it. The film doesn’t make judgments; it simply shows this world and all of its terrible truths. The fact that it manages to be darkly comic at moments simply speaks wonders for Solondz’s screenplay as well. Not since The Savages and Tess have I seen a film that was this unrelentingly pessimistic and cynical, but it’s the same brutal vision that makes it such a remarkable feature. When a film can turn the simple act of pouring salt on your food into one of the most emotionally rich moments in the film, you know you’re in for something special.
The only reason this film isn’t getting perfect marks is because of the one part of the ensemble that didn’t click with me because simply every other aspect of the film was almost beyond words. This is visceral, stomach-turning cinema at its finest. I actually don’t recommend this hardly any of my readers because the material is simply so tough and intentionally offensive, that you will likely watch it in complete disgust and never listen to my recommendations again. However, if you can place your preconceptions at the door and sit through this deeply layered and subtextual film (that I swear managed to make me literally laugh out loud on several different occasions), you may find a film that ignores all of the rule of mainstream morals and fairy-tale happy endings and instead challenges you with an adult and mature conversations about what it means to be happy and what we go through to achieve something that may very well not exist in the first place. Todd Solondz, I salute you.
Final Score: A