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Happiness (1998) - Todd Solondz

Related: black comedy - grotesque cinema - happiness (emotion) - 1998 films - American cinema

Themes: alienation - pedophilia

Tragic and disturbing scenes are often tempered with dark humor, such as a scene in which one character confesses to being raped and then murdering her rapist while ordering dessert.The grim outlook on adult life stops only for the last scene, which shows the only truly happy person in the movie — 12-year-old Billy has just ejaculated for the first time and comes inside to tell his family, who are naturally shocked. The film was highly controversial upon its released and was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Particularly controversial was its portrayal of Bill, a pedophile and child rapist, as a three-dimensional human being with redeeming qualities. While the way in which the role was written was criticized, however, Baker was lauded for his performance. [1]

Happiness (1998) - Todd Solondz
[FR] [DE] [UK]
poster artwork by Daniel Clowes


Happiness is a 1998 American motion picture, written and directed by Todd Solondz that show the lives of three sisters and their families.

It stars Jane Adams, Elizabeth Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Jared Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Jon Lovitz, Camryn Manheim, Rufus Read and Cynthia Stevenson. The films cast received the National Board of Review award for best ensemble performance.

Happiness is an episodic movie in the same line as Robert Altman's famous Short Cuts. The episodes show parts of the lives of three New Jersey sisters as well as their parents. It is a movie which breaks with "normal" Hollywood conventions at every opportunity.

This becomes first apparent in the opening sequence, where one of the sisters tells a suitor, who was just about to propose to her, that she simply detests him and finds him boring. There is no effort on the part of the filmmaker to give this a funny twist, or to manipulate the scene in any other way, to either spare the viewer the embarrassment of the character being rejected. The audience is shown the entire sequence, where normal Hollywood convention would be content to show what is happening in general and then cut to another scene.

The rest of the movie is no less squeamish when it comes to showing where and how interpersonal relationships fail, how people get further and further away from happiness in their lives. There are some short glimpses of it, for example when one of the sisters sleeps with a Russian from her language class, who woos her with guitar playing and soppy words—only to steal her happiness in the next scene by literally, essentially, robbing her.

Another part does not shy away from presenting a scene in which a father admits to his son that he is a pedophile and assaulted one of the son's friends. This is not done in a voyeuristic way, however, as the audience can feel some sorrow for this criminal.

The tragic and sick is somewhat balanced by some funny points, though, sometimes with both in the same scene, such as the admission to murder while ordering dessert in the second half of the movie.

The altogether rather grim outlook on adult life with its complexities stops only for the last scene, which shows the only truly happy person in the movie —a teenage boy who has just ejaculated for the first time, and comes inside to tell his family, who are, of course, shocked. --[1]

Amazon review

At times brilliant and insightful, at times repellent and false, Happiness is director Todd Solondz's multistory tale of sex, perversion, and loneliness. Plumbing depths of Crumb-like angst and rejection, Solondz won the Cannes International Critics Prize in 1998 and the film was a staple of nearly every critic's Top Ten list. Admirable, shocking, and hilarious for its sarcastic yet strangely empathetic look at consenting adults' confusion between lust and love, the film stares unflinchingly until the audience blinks. But it doesn't stop there. A word of strong caution to parents: One of the main characters, a suburban super dad (played by Dylan Baker), is really a predatory pedophile and there is more than an attempt to paint him as a sympathetic character. Children are used in this film as running gags or, worse, the means to an end. Whether that end is a humorous scene for Solondz or sexual gratification for the rapist becomes largely irrelevant. Happiness is an intelligent, sad film, revelatory and exact at moments. It's also abuse in the guise of art. That's nothing to celebrate. --Keith Simanton for Amazon.com


[Before listing this movie in July 2003, I upheld the principle not to list things that I did not like or found pleasure in. I did not find pleasure in "Happiness", because of its intended and intense sadness, of which there is already enough in each of us. As an insight in late 1990s Western morality, this movie is an excellent introduction --jahsonic.com]

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