#200 Happiness

(1998, Todd Solondz)

“I wake up happy, feeling good, but then I get very depressed because I’m living in reality”

From its title and poster alone, Happiness looks like a nice, comfortable romantic comedy, but the truth is, it isn’t. Happiness is one of the least appropriately named movies ever made. Happiness is not a happy movie. But it is a comedy, so it may put a smile on your face. Or horrify you beyond belief. It could seriously go either way. Let me explain.

Happiness revolves around three sisters in the Jordan family, each with their own story and misadventures. Joy (Jane Adams), the youngest, is overly sensitive and unhappy in both her romantic and professional life, and attempts to meet a decent man and leave her telephone sales job to work as a teacher in an immigrant education centre.

Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful writer but she’s disillusioned and wants more excitement, and she also receives unwanted attention from her socially awkward neighbour Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who likes to call random numbers in the phone book and masturbate to any woman he hears.

The eldest sister, Diane (Elizabeth Ashley), seems to live the perfect suburban family life, but her psychiatrist husband, Bill (Dylan Baker), is secretly a paedophile who is developing an obsession with their son’s friend Johnny.

Happiness is very much a divisive film. You may have guessed this from the fact that one of the subplots revolves around paedophilia. This is a black comedy of the highest order. It’s disgusting, it’s depraved, it’s offensive, and it is hilarious.

Let’s tackle these subplots one by one. Let’s start with Joy’s story. Essentially one of the key parts of the movie, almost every scene involving Joy is awkward as hell. The movie opens on an incredibly uncomfortable conversation between Joy and her date, and it pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie.

Her story, on paper, sounds very much like traditional romantic comedy fare, until suicide, badly-accented Russians and fraud enter the picture. In a traditional comedy, Joy would overcome her anxiety, become a successful musician and manage to change the disgusting Russian man into a gentleman, but in this movie, the universe is determined to keep Joy as meek as possible forever. And it goes to great lengths to do so, to the point of absurdity. And it’s hilarious, in an uncomfortable kind of way.

The story that follows Bill is even more uncomfortable. Aside from conversations with his son that are all extremely awkward chats about puberty and penises, there is that small point that Bill is sexually attracted to children. Yes, that makes it worse.

When this plot point is introduced, it’s a major shock. The movie doesn’t even introduce it subtly; Bill simply buys a teen magazine and masturbates to the small boy on the cover in his car. Child abuse isn’t really a topic that can be laughed at, and the movie does well to not make direct jokes about it, it just goes out of its way to make us feel uneasy about it.

Based on what I’ve been reading about the reaction to this subplot, many were openly offended by it, which is understandable. But I oddly liked how this section of the movie was handled. Absolutely, it’s very dark and unpleasant subject matter, but there’s a certain level of remorse in Bill’s character that makes it bearable. Hell, if anything, this subplot is proof that the movie really doesn’t want us to like its characters.

Speaking of not liking its characters, let’s talk about Allen. We see very little of Helen, and spend more time with her unpleasant neighbour. This was a portion of the movie I liked less, largely because it was mostly just fat jokes and masturbation references. There was a certain degree of absurdity in Kristina, the woman who has a crush on him, but overall, Allen’s story was the weakest part of the movie for me. Joy’s story was a deconstruction of more cheerful comedy movies, while Diane and Bill’s explored dark subject matter in a reasonably intelligent way, but Allen’s just felt lazy.

I also felt that more focus should have been given to Helen herself. A horrendously bitchy character, she was played so well by Lara Flynn Boyle that it felt that there’d be a greater source of comedy from her than from Allen. Her role being reduced to bitching about her sisters and being the source of Allen’s gross fantasies made her feel more hollow than Boyle seemed willing to let her be.

Happiness is not going to win over everyone. It is awkward and unpleasant and covers some dark, uncomfortable subject matter. But it is entertaining and feels a little savvier than some other gross-out comedies out there.

Starring Jane Adams, Elizabeth Ashley, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Jared Harris, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Jon Lovitz, Camryn Manheim, Rufus Read & Cynthia Stevenson
Written by Todd Solondz
Produced by David Linde & James Schamus
Music by Robbie Kondor
Cinematography by Maryse Alberti
Edited by Alan Oxman

Favourite Scene: Joy’s attempts to awkwardly brush off the brash advances of her Russian student were hilarious, particularly since he was such an absurd character.
Scene That Bugged Me: The movie did get a little too uncomfortable when Bill ran around trying to drug Johnny. It went on a little too long for my liking.

Watch it if: You like your comedy a little on the darker side
Avoid it if: You’re easily offended

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Posted on July 9, 2013, in 1990s, Comedy, Drama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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