“Happiness”: An outrageously black and twisted look at the human condition

By on January 16, 2016

Todd Solondz’s Happiness is an outrageously black and twisted look at the human condition, a film that is chock full of forbidden subject matter. Sexual deprivation in spades, pedophilia, a successful young woman with a desire to be raped, and sexual demons running amok.

It contains scenes that will have you squirming in your seat, while you try not to laugh. It’s my kind of movie, but it’s most certainly not for everyone.

Solondz should be a name all movie lovers are familiar with, but he hasn’t quite attained that status with the seven movies he’s written and directed thus far (Welcome To The Dollhouse and Storytelling are examples), even though more than a few of them have been hailed by the critics and have won several film festival awards. They are all unique, disturbing, funny/sad, and will convince you that he has an incredible talent for casting just the right person for the role.

As Solondz says, “There’s good laughter and bad laughter. As long as they’re not laughing at the expense of any of these characters, it’s OK. My films are comedies, but they’re sad comedies and Happiness is the saddest of all. Some people will if course accuse me of misanthropy and cynicism. I can’t celebrate humanity but I’m not out to indict it either. I just want to expose certain truths.”

And expose them he does. He gets a lot of help from a stellar ensemble cast and some the best character actors available and half of them have some serious secrets they’re hiding.

The opening scene involves a cameo by Jon Lovitz (in a rare dramatic role), having a meal in a restaurant while the youngest sister (Jane Adams) has just told him that she doesn’t care to see him any longer. He does not take it well and after his tears have subsided the conversation slowly begins to turn ugly.

After this truly odd and uncomfortable opening scene we are introduced to the other major players in this funny and unnerving film.

We see the lives of 3 sisters who have nothing in common, starting with the eldest, Trish Maplewood (played wonderfully by Cynthia Stevenson), who is married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist who has a deep, deep hidden and uncontrollable desire to fondle and have sex with young boys, and in fact drugs his young son’s 11 year old friend and rapes him while he’s unconscious when he sleeps over at their house.

It gets worse. When we first meet him he’s confiding with his own therapist about a recurring dream he has of shooting people with an assault rifle as they lounge in a park area, and it’s decided that he’s making progress because he didn’t kill himself at the end of the dream.

Dylan Baker puts in an uncanny performance and although what he’s doing is abominable and reprehensible by anyone’s standards he manages to make one actually feel empathy for his character.

The scenes with him and one of his sons discussing ejaculation and penis size will curl your toes. You will not be able to turn away when he confesses to his young son that he has fucked two of his friends, and when his son asks him if he has to worry about being defiled he’s told “No. I’ll just jerk off.” Strong stuff.

His wife Trish has no idea what’s going on and believes she has it all…a successful and responsible husband, along with her wonderful family and doesn’t hesitate to brag about it to the youngest sister.

Helen, the middle sister (Lara Flynn Boyle), is a selfish and narcissistic critically acclaimed poet who surrounds herself with young, bodybuilding males, but actually believes herself to be empty and worthless, and in truth she is. She currently entertains the fantasy of being raped so the book she’s currently working on, which happens to be about rape will be credible.

Joy (Jane Adams), is the youngest of the brood and dabbles in songwriting while she works in the unfulfilling job of telephone sales before she quits to cross a picket line to teach at an immigrant-education center. There she is called a scab by her students, and meets Vlad (Jared Harris), from Russia, who drives a cab and characterizes himself as a thief.

He then proceeds to prove it when he drives her home one day, gets invited in, and plays on her low self-esteem to have sex with her, but not before he picks up her guitar and sings “You Light Up My Life” in his heavy Russian accent, which has to qualify as the most outrageously funny scene in the movie. When he leaves directly after having sex with her he takes her guitar and CD player.

There is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a patient of Dylan Baker’s, who expounds endlessly about how boring he is, while Dylan goes over his shopping list in his head. Hoffman is a socially maladroit, sexually frustrated loner who has a propensity for making outrageously vile, obscene phone calls as he scans the phone book for women to sexually harass, and a secret overwhelming lust for one of his neighbors (Lara Flynn Boyle), while he is constantly bothered (just short of stalking) by another neighbor (Camryn Manheim), who continues to knock on his door to fill him in on the mysterious death of Pedro, one of the doormen at the complex. When the truth comes out it’s more bizarre than you would’ve ever imagined.

The parents of the three sisters are played by the great Ben Gazzara and Woody Allen’s ex-wife. Louise Lasser. They’ve been married for 40 years and Ben has lost his lust, not only for his wife, but for life itself and makes the announcement that he just wants to be left alone. He’s not interested in divorce, just solitude, which no one in the family is able to understand.

Make no mistake, there are no clues or directions on how to find happiness for yourself to be found in this film. None of the dysfunctional characters are up to it, and ironically the one person at the end of the film who seems to locate the elusive commodity is not only a complete surprise, but another laugh out loud moment courtesy of Mr. Solondz.

Warning/Guarantee…this is not an ideal date movie, but I can tell you that when I watched this movie with my wife at the time, she told me that it was one of the most honest films she had ever seen. I suppose she was right since we were unable to attain the mysterious sentiment. Life is far too complicated. It can be even more complicated when sex is involved. Hunt down and watch this movie. You can thank me later.


About Tom Brown

Tom has published two terrific books, Summer Of Love, My Ass!: A Memoir June 12, 1967 – April 28, 1969, and Confessions Of A ZAPPA Fanatic, both credited to H.T. Brown (but please call him Tom). They’re both available from Amazon and other places where you can buy books. He's also previously worked in the music business, on both sides of the coin (or lack of it), at the venerable Rhino record company, and playing drums on the surf classic "Jezabel" by the Illusions, and with Zoogz Rift, beginning in 1988.
  • Tony Byrer

    I’ve seen this movie. It’s quite memorable. Take the author’s advice and hunt it down.