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I’ve heard it said that horror and humor both stem from a similar mental state. The idea is that we can only react in either of those two ways when no other reaction seems applicable and nothing makes any kind of sense. When we’re faced with something outrageously wrong, something that every level of our psyche flat refuses to accept as reality, something that cannot be dealt with in any known rational way, there’s nothing left to do except to laugh (relieving the stress) or faint with terror (and hope that the perceived threat moves on, thinking you’re dead).

If you think that’s all a bunch of bullshit, then you’ve never seen Happiness.

This film was incredibly controversial before it had even been released. The Sundance Film Festival refused to screen the film, most likely because of all the sexual perversion on display. In fact, pretty much every theater in the country refused to screen the film after the MPAA slapped it with an NC-17. The film was finally given an unrated DVD release and proceeded to rack up a ton of critical accolades. The movie currently holds an 85 percent Tomatometer, and Roger Ebert called it the fifth best movie of 1998.

For my part, I’d agree that there’s a lot to like about Happiness. Sorry, did I say “like?” I meant “respect.” That seems like a more accurate word.

The film is comprised of multiple storylines, all loosely connected by a trio of sisters and the overarching theme of looking for happiness in all the wrong places. The first lead character we meet is Joy Jordan (Jane Adams), who’s having a very awkward and extremely drawn-out breakup with her latest attempt at a boyfriend. The latter is played by Jon Lovitz, who only gets this one scene before his character commits suicide. This is emblematic of everything that happens with Joy throughout the picture. She struggles to carve a niche for herself and find Mr. Right, but every single attempt backfires in laughably improbable ways. Her unbelievable misfortune, coupled with her name, serves as an example of the pitch-black comedic irony that pervades the entire picture.

Anyway, at least Joy means well. She’s not at all malicious, and she does have something of a development arc through the movie. That makes her the only sympathetic main character in this picture.

Next up is Trish Maplewood nee Jordan (Cynthia Stevenson). Trish is a curious hypocrisy: She’s endlessly happy with her own life and relentlessly critical of other people, but she can afford to be that way because she doesn’t have to do anything. Her perfect little life was simply handed to her, and she doesn’t even seem to know that, much less accept it. Everything she has is built on a house of cards, and she seems willfully ignorant of the fact.

This brings us to her husband, Dr. Bill Maplewood, played by Dylan Baker. The man works as a psychiatrist, but we eventually learn — get this — he’s secretly a pedophile. We actually see this guy jerking off in his car to pictures of grade-school boys. Bill also makes a hobby out of drugging and raping his son’s friends, though that’s mercifully left offscreen.

However, Bill’s storyline is most notable for his interplay with his son. See, young Billy Maplewood (Rufus Read) is just starting to hit puberty, so he of course has to have The Big Talk with his father. On the one hand, this is understandable and natural. It’s something that everyone goes through, and I can respect a film that portrays such a rite of passage in an honest and forthright way. On the other hand, it can still be a very awkward and uncomfortable discussion for those involved. And watching someone else’s kid talk with his dad about semen and penis sizes? Yeah, that’s way uncomfortable. Oh, and did I mention that the father is secretly a gay pedophile?! Yeah, that adds a really disturbing level of irony to the proceedings.

This whole discussion is spread out over multiple scenes, all of them perfectly straddling the aforementioned line between horror and comedy. Easily the best of them happens at the climax, when Bill Sr. finally has to admit what a monster he is. That scene is powerful, disturbing, awkward, scary, and funny in a way that makes you hate yourself for laughing, all at once. Dylan Baker is a hugely underrated actor, and that one scene is proof positive.

Oh, and there’s another highlight: A dream sequence in which Bill walks out into a park with a machine gun and slaughters everyone there. The photography is bright and colorful, and the score is nice and cheery, which makes for a very powerful contrast against all the grotesque violence on display. Again, the presentation is such that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or scream.

Moving on, we’ve also got Helen Jordan, played by Lara Flynn Boyle. Helen is a tremendously successful writer, but she thinks that her works are total crap. She’s a drop-dead gorgeous woman who could (and does) sleep with anyone she wants, but none of her potential boyfriends are good enough for her. Helen is a woman who has everything, and it still isn’t enough. She always wants more. In fact, there’s one scene in which Helen actually wishes for something awful to happen to her, just so she’d have something to write about with any kind of authenticity.

Enter her next-door neighbor.

Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is probably the saddest sack in the entire movie, and I’m including the serial rapist in that assessment. Here’s a filthy schlub who routinely makes obscene phone calls because that’s the only kind of social interaction he’s comfortable with. Allen desperately wants to have sex, but he doesn’t seem comfortable with the kind of intimacy that sex requires. Even on those rare occasions when women show some degree of interest, Allen is made so uncomfortable that he just shuts down.

It should go without saying that Allen is a completely unsympathetic character. However, Allen’s saving grace is the same as Bill’s: The casting. Just as Dylan Baker imbues his character with so much pathos and nuance, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a hundred times over. Hoffman plays his character with a contagious sort of self-pity, such that I couldn’t help pitying the guy right along with him. Sometimes, I even found myself wishing that he would actually get laid somehow. But then I remembered that such an event would require a woman who was even more pathetic and desperate. The thought was so appalling that I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it.

But I did. Her name is Kristina, and she’s played by Camryn Manheim. Every time these two characters met, it was another of those times when felt like an awful human being for laughing so hard.

Before going any further, I suppose I should talk about the parents. Yes, the Jordan sisters’ parents get their own storyline as well. We meet Mona Jordan (Louise Lasser), who’s on so many prescription medications that you’d think she was secretly doing R&D on a new street drug. She’s married to Lenny Jordan (the late, great Ben Gazzara), though their marriage is on the rocks. You see, the two separate after Lenny decides that he needs more space. There’s never a clear answer as to why, but there’s a strong sense that Lenny wants to get out and enjoy his golden years while he still can. Mona, by comparison, seems to have a lot of difficulty in leaving the house. It certainly doesn’t help that Mona goes into hysterics at the mention of Lenny leaving her, which leads to a lot of confusion when she says they’re not getting divorced.

It’s easily the weakest storyline of the bunch. I was far more interested in the Jordan sisters’ subplots, though two of the sisters seemed like mere supporting players in their own storylines. Cynthia Stevenson fails to make any kind of an impression, though maybe that’s because her character was supposed to be a parody of a bland suburban housewife. Compare that to Lara Flynn Boyle, who makes a solid impression with very little screen time.

I know it sounds like a backhanded compliment to say that Boyle barely looks like she’s putting in any effort, but that’s the point. It sells the idea that her character is bored, apathetic, and generally overloaded with ennui. Boyle sells a very unique type of bitchy; Helen doesn’t seem like the type of person who’d set a house on fire, but she is the type of person who would stand by and watch it burn. She allows bad things to happen just so she can see how events unfold and possibly use it as inspiration for another book. Oh, and last but not least, it certainly helps that Boyle is one of those women who can somehow look incredibly bored and still be smoking hot.

With all of that said, it bears remembering that Trish and Helen both get marginal screen time and development. Their storylines are only worth watching because of Bill and Allen, both of whom have stories and arcs that are far more interesting than those of their female counterparts. Compare that to Joy, the clear protagonist of her own storyline, and she’s very nicely played with an awkward kind of adorable by Jane Adams. It also helps that she gets a romance arc with Jared Harris, who’s always a pleasure to see onscreen.

(Side note: Joy’s storyline also includes a cameo from Molly Shannon, who partakes in yet another of the movie’s cleverly sinister humorous scenes. I won’t go into details, but I will say that it involves the suicide of Jon Lovitz’ character.)

Happiness is the work of a dark and depraved mind. The film is so twisted that it could eat nails and shit corkscrews. Still, I can’t help but admire a film that explores sexual perversion and pedophilia to such a blunt degree. Even better, the film uses pitch-black irony and a cutthroat sense of humor to make the subject matter funny while still taking it seriously. It’s sugar-coated without being glorified, and I deeply respect a filmmaker who can toe that line so perfectly. Better yet, the film is powered by a superbly talented cast to help keep the proceedings watchable and the characters interesting.

I don’t know if I’d call the movie enjoyable, but it was definitely memorable. It was very well-made, and it was certainly never boring. I do recommend the film and I’m glad I got the chance to see it, but I don’t expect I’ll have the urge to revisit it anytime soon.

P.S. Special thanks to Helena, who lent me the DVD.


  1. Ping from Joshua:

    Nice. Could you watch some of Solondz’s later films? I did hear that they were weaker than Happiness although Life During Wartime seems to be a good place to start since it’s a sort-of sequel to that film.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    I’ve read up on Life During Wartime, and it does indeed sound pretty weak. Plus, I’m not sure I like the idea of learning what eventually happened to these characters, especially if they’re all played by different actors. I’d be interested to see Welcome to the Dollhouse, though.

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