One hardly knows where to begin with reviewing such a film. Todd Solondz’s Happiness is many things but let’s start with the acknowledgement that it is a challenging film. It is a disgusting masterpiece that taunts its audience who tend not to know how to react to it. The sensational Roger Ebert summarised the spectator’s battle with Happiness in his review of the film, where he states:
“Is it a portrait of desperate human sadness? Then why are we laughing? Is it an ironic comedy? Then why its tenderness with these lonely people? Is it about depravity?” (Ebert, 1998)
There are so many questions we ask whilst watching Happiness, most of which are concerned with our own reactions to it. Balancing humour with dark issues of isolation, murder, sex, child molestation and acceptance, Happiness pushes the boundaries of American independent cinema and simultaneously drives the audience, characters and cinema experience to its limits. It would have been so easy for Solondz to go that little bit too far, but he does not. The empathy we feel for most of the characters outweighs some of their wrong doings. Despite the films brutally honest visual depiction of some very taboo subjects, there is a deeper level to Happiness that gives it purpose and importance.
Everybody in this film is isolated and separated by something; some from society, some within their marriages, some through their sexual perversions and illnesses. Everyone wears a mask, hiding who they really are. Despite sex, age, class and image, each complex character suffers from loneliness and secrecy. Three sisters form a chain that connects each character, however loosely, to one another. Joy, Trish and Helen live very different lives. Joy is lacking in self-esteem and direction and is longing for love and a career as a musician. Trish is a judgemental and superficial suburban housewife, unaware that her husband is a paedophile. Helen is a successful author who is unfulfilled with her success and the adoration she receives. Helen is becoming intrigued by a man who makes dirty phone calls to her daily. The man in question is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose sudden and tragic death we mourn this week. His character, Allen, lives right next door to Helen, unbeknown to her. He undergoes weekly therapy from a psychologist who is none other than Bill the previously mentioned paedophile and husband to Trish. The sister’s parents are also brought into the narrative as their marriage comes to an end.
It should be mentioned that each story is moving in its own way. Bill’s storyline is the one that most will remember because of the harrowing subject it deals with and the honest nature in which it is told. Yet, Happiness is as comical as it is upsetting. The film has charm amidst its horror. The narrative flows perfectly as we jump from story to story. The most moving scene of the film involves a conversation between Bill and his son. The scene’s honesty and boldness is disturbing and grotesque but incredibly moving and profound. Despite the aggression that Todd Solondz brings to Happiness it is also a remarkably careful and cautious movie. The film has so much to say that it is better to watch it for yourself rather than sit through long descriptive reviews of it. Happiness is a film that you have to make your own mind up about and remains a unique experience for everyone who watches it. What some have misread as tastelessness is brave and refreshing film-making and storytelling within the limits of the modern American film industry. Films like Happiness don’t come along too often which is probably a good thing because they take a while to comprehend and process. Still, when they do they are difficult, intense and original. Happiness is executed astutely and carried by an abundance of strong performances, especially from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Baker.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
He was a masterful actor and an irreplaceable talent.