Aviva is thirteen, awkward and sensitive. Her mother Joyce is warm and loving, as is her father, Steve, a regular guy who does have a fierce temper from time to time. The film revolves around her family, friends and neighbors.
Jennifer Jason Leigh,
Stephen Adly Guirgis
A woman breaks up with her boyfriend, he thinks it's because he's fat. A man is unable to tell her next door neighbor he finds her sexually attractive. An old couple wants to split up, but they don't want to get a divorce. A therapist masturbates to teen magazines. An 11 year old kid is insecure about the fact that he hasn't cum yet. Office workers try to recall the face of a coworker who recently died. A woman is sure she has everything she could ever want. The lives of these individuals intertwine as they go about their lives in their own unique ways, engaging in acts society as a whole might find disturbing in a desperate search for human connection.Written by
To call Todd Solondz's "Happiness" a dark comedy is to redefine the words "dark" and "comedy". It hates the world and everyone in it, and takes great pleasure in mocking people stupid enough to try to be happy. In Solondz's world, life is pointless, hope is for suckers, and everybody is basically bad at heart. It says something that the movie's most human, sympathetic character is a child molester.
And, yes, it's a comedy - often a very, very funny one. Funny in a morbid, gallows humor, dead baby joke sort of way, but funny nonetheless.
The chief characters in "Happiness" are all stunted, narcissistic and hopelessly inadequate. Joy (Jane Adams) is a born loser who drifts through a series of menial jobs and drives her boyfriend to suicide; her sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is so self-absorbed that she thinks her biggest problem is that everyone loves her too much; her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can only connect to people by making obscene phone calls; and Bill (Dylan Baker), his therapist and Joy and Helen's brother-in-law, is a pedophile who rapes two of his 11-year-old son's friends.
Somehow, Solondz makes these horrible people really, really funny. Like John Waters and the Farrelly Brothers, Solondz finds humor in ugliness and revels in bad taste. He makes sexual dysfunction and personal failure brutally funny; Allen's obscene phone calls, for example, are almost endearing in their ineptitude and anatomical incorrectness ("I'm gonna f*** you in the... ear"), while Helen's narcissism makes her gloriously clueless ("If only I had been raped as a child - then I would know authenticity!"). Solondz shows his characters in a clear, satiric light, and it despises them.
While Solondz may not like his characters, he does not take the easy way out by making them caricatures. Every one of these awful human beings is a three-dimensional character with reasons for being awful.
For example, most directors would have made Bill a one-note villain, but Solondz makes him a pitiful monster who is tortured by ghastly sexual urges that he knows are wrong. There's a tough scene near the end where Bill has a frank talk with his son Billy about his pedophilia, admitting: that he enjoyed raping his victims; that he would do it again; and, while he would not rape his own son, he would "jerk off instead". Both father and son are crying - Billy with horror as he realizes just what Bill is, and Bill with shame and despair as he realizes the same thing. It's hard to watch, but it's an acting master class and absolutely fearless film-making.
This is a real actor's movie; the cast gives career-best performances. Baker is both horrifying and heartbreaking as Bill; he squirms in his own skin, as if he is being eaten alive by his own sickness. We pity him, whether we want to or not. Hoffman is hilariously pathetic as Allen, sweating and mumbling with lonely self-hatred. Adams is sad and sweet as the luckless Helen, the closest thing the movie has to a moral center, while Boyle is priceless as the contemptible Helen, swanning around as if waiting for the world to thank her for being born.
"Happiness" is the epitome of "acquired taste" - its humor is bitter, acidic and often cruel, and it takes real joy in offending the audience. Go elsewhere for a feel-good comedy with a happy ending. If nothing else, though, it's a true original, and deserves credit for carving out its own niche in the "dark comedy" genre.
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