Starring: Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan Baker, Cynthia Stevenson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Camryn Manheim, Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Ashley
Not Rated (Probably NC-17 for Pervasive Sexual Content including Aberrant Sexuality, Language and Some Violence)
Be aware of trailers...
Occasionally, you'll see a movie marketed as something other than it actually is. For example, "Carriers" was marketed as a horror movie when in reality it was nothing of the kind. Such is the case with "Happiness." The trailers made it out to be a cheerful, if warped, comedy. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a blacker-than-black dramedy that explicitly deals with subject matter such as pedophilia, sexual perversions, and where just about every character is an abhorrent misanthrope. Needless to say, it's not for everyone (even Todd Solondz, the director, says this).
Sadly the film doesn't work on its own level. As a tragi-comic send-up of family dramas, it comes up considerably short. The characters are almost always unlikable, if they provoke any feeling at all. In most cases, they don't. They're almost all boring. The former is a challenge to overcome, but the latter is impossible. How can you maintain interest in a story, whatever kind it is, if you don't care about the people involved in it?
This is an ensemble movie, but at the center of it are the three Jordan sisters: shy Joy (Adams), who has terrible luck with men, professional poet Helen (Boyle), who seeks more than wealth and glamour, and perfect mom Trish (Stevenson), who is married to Bill (Baker), who is a pedophile. Their parents Lenny (Gazzara) and Mona (Lasser) are in the process of separating, but they're not doing much about it.
Joy has a fling with one of her ESL students, a thief by the name of Vlad (Harris). Helen seeks a relationship of some kind with Allen (Hoffman), who gave her an obscene phone call. And Trish is totally oblivious to Bill's predilections. Lenny attempts to have an affair with the resident maneater, Diane (Ashley) while Mona voices her insecurities.
The problem is not the amount of characters or the subject matter. Done right, this could have been riveting viewing. But there's something too stilted, too rehearsed about the way the characters talk. At times it sounded like they were reading off cue cards. It prevented me from buying into their world. And Solondz doesn't always have a good feel for how people naturally talk. Sometimes he forces them to mumble and stutter in an attempt at realism but comes across as obviously fake.
The actors do what they can, but they are misused by the director. The only ones who are worth mentioning are Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Camryn Manheim. They have energy, and therefore the most interesting characters. Dylan Baker has the most interesting character on paper, and while his performance is effective and justifiably led to better things, it's not as brilliant as some are saying.
I'll give Solondz and his cast credit for their guts. This is not a film that many people would walk into under their own volition (and stay to the end). Indeed, according to James Berardinelli Universal Studios independent arm October films dropped all rights to the film after CEO Ron Meyer said that he didn't want to understand the mind of a pedophile and he didn't want his company to release a film that attempted to do so. Indeed, Solondz asks us to understand Bill as much as we abhor his actions. His reaction wasn't the only one. Again, according to Berardinelli, John Waters (the guy behind the infamous "Pink Flamingos") praised the film while the Farrelly Brothers (who made "There's Something About Mary," also released in 1998) called it "sick."
I can see how this movie could be so divisive. It's that kind of movie. But from this critic's point of view, the only emotion it warrants is apathy.