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1 item from 1998

Film review: 'Happiness' "Happiness" was originally reviewed May 18 at the Cannes International Film Festival. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday via Good Machine.

14 October 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

A stunning new dark comedy from filmmaker Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse"), "Happiness" rocks, shocks and reels the viewer into the decidedly unhappy lives of a dozen or so middle-class denizens of New Jersey.

This is a limited-release hot potato that should draw big crowds, but its probing, sometimes blunt approach to sensitive subject matters that are mostly taboo in mainstream film poses a major marketing and publicity challenge.

With an uncomfortable atmosphere from the opening scene in a restaurant, in which sweet thirtysomething Joy (Jane Adams) breaks up with beefy loser Andy (Jon Lovitz), "Happiness" has a jerky but engaging rhythm that unpredictably connects a multigenerational gaggle of flawed adults and impressionable children around the quest for the titular state of being.

The only significant flaw in such an unexpectedly ambitious film is the long running time, with the final section dragging a bit.

Unlucky in love and career, Joy is the subject of concern to her sisters, who tend to conspire in keeping secrets and critical thoughts from her.

Helen Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful writer with a variety of lovers, who complains of the pressures of being famous. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is married with three children and appears to have the perfect middle-class life, but her stiff, dull psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) has violent dreams and oldest son Billy (Dylan Baker) has reached the age where he's picking up naughty words at school.

Helen's neighbor Allan Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a chunky lonely-heart with a vivid fantasy life that includes very impure thoughts about her. He makes random calls to women for the purposes of getting off and unexpectedly finds her interested, which for this shy guy is not the ticket to bliss. His other neighbor, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), appears at his door at odd moments, but she's too much like him and he meanly brushes her off. He eventually turns to her in a moment of crisis, and she reveals her nasty secret.

Perhaps the least interesting story line involves the three sisters' separating parents (Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara), who are staying in the family's condo in Boca Raton. But it hardly amounts to wasted screen time. In a virtuoso bit of storytelling, when a potential resolution or happy ending appears for a character, the tables are turned with bittersweet results.

The most sensitive material in a film that is constantly surprising in its ability to rip down the facades characters hide behind, involves seemingly sexless Bill and his growing attraction to young boys. At ease talking with son Billy about sex, Bill becomes a devious serial rapist with dire consequences. In an incredible scene near the end, he admits his guilt and does not apologize to Billy, with both actors leaving one breathless with admiration.

Much of the film leaves one in stitches, but the cumulative effect is disturbing and unforgettably honest in the exploration of sexual attitudes, deficiencies and sad fantasies of the characters. There are also a few jokes about ejaculation and graphic language that will not amuse everyone, but Solondz has bravely taken on important themes and depicts situations that audiences will be talking about for a long time.


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