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Happiness: Signature Series

Lions Gate Home Entertainment

Starring Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman,
Cynthia Stevenson, and Lara Flynn Boyle

Written and directed by Todd Solondz


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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    


Some movies make you laugh. Others are filled with pain and torment. Rarely do the two intercede, and when they do, seldom is it with the grace and brilliance of Happiness, the most recent release from the audacious — and probably very deeply disturbed — auteur Todd Solondz. Right up front I will tell you that Happiness has offended, disgusted, and psychologically scarred a majority of its audience, including those who love the film. Its subject matter ranges from broken hearts to masturbation to paedophelia, and it's all approached with an unprecedented mixture of cynicism, sensitivity, sarcasm, and empathy.

Happiness loosely concerns the relationships of three sisters. The youngest, Joy (Jane Adams), is thirty and facing an early mid-life crisis. Horribly vulnerable and unhappy with her invisible career in telemarketing, Jane finds herself assaulted with grim consequence even when she dares to takes strong actions. When she breaks up with a man she feels no attraction to, he responds by killing himself and blaming her in his farewell note. Desperate to improve her life, Jane takes a tough job teaching English to refugees, and finds herself further attacked and opened up to new forms of victimization from all sides as a result of this philanthropic move.

The second sister, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), is an emerging writer faced with sudden success. Tormented by the shallowness or her poetry, she wishes she had been raped at an early age so that her writing would have more conviction. Helen, however, is almost a backdrop during her segments of the film. Instead, Solondz focuses upon her sexually repressed neighbor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose anonymous obscene phone calls excite her artist's need for depravity.

The third sister, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), is also tangential to her own segment of the film. An acutely observed harpy, she compensates for her passive housewifey domesticity by aggressively criticizing everything in her midst — especially helpless Joy. Little does she know that her biggest problem is lurking in her own living room. Her husband (Dylan Baker, in a wonderful performance better than anything celebrated by Oscar in the last several years), although a loving father and professional psychiatrist, has fantasies about mass murder and is compelled to rape their young son's friends.

Concurrent with these intersecting dramas — and the most negligible storyline running through the film — the elderly mother and father (Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara) of these very unhappy sisters separate and face new uncertainties of their own. It's an obvious irony that no one in this film is ever actually happy (except once, at the very end), but of even greater interest is how the profound unhappiness of everyone involved is a direct result of their misdirected campaigns for sexual and/or emotional fulfillment.

Although Happiness dwells extravagantly on misery and perversion, writer-director Solondz studies it with same keen understanding and acerbic wit which made his previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, a breakthrough for the stuttering visionary. Great credit must be given to the entire cast, who tackle their often unpleasant characters with complete objectivity and empathy. There is not a bad performance to be found here (Boyle is the most hollow, but so is her character), and there are even amusing, well-tuned cameos by Jon Lovitz and Marla Maples. Perhaps what disturbs audiences of this film the most is how human, and even sometimes likable, these creepy, pathetic people are. It may revolt you to feel for a paedophile, but such conflicts are the mark of great art. And Solondz, though hilariously cruel at times, wraps it all up with a certain, although twisted, glimmer of hope.

Happiness may not be a feel-good favorite you excitedly revisit every couple of months or years or lifetimes, but it will stick with you, whether you like it or not.

Lions Gate's Happiness: Signature Series is a re-release of the original Trimark disc with a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and 2.0 Dolby Surround. Extras include a trailer and textual supplements, while the menu is strikingly bright and kitschy.

— Review by Gregory P. Dorr



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