Saturday, January 13, 2007

Movie Review: Happiness 4 ½ Stars

Happiness was one of the most remarkable films of Bleak Chic 1998. Todd Solondz has crafted a dark, deadpan and unrelenting satire of suburban family life, joining the ranks of American auteurs John Cassevetes, Woody Allen, and Henry Jaglom but with a decidely post-TV talk show edge.

This dense film tells the stories of three sisters and the family members, neighbors and twisted sexual partners with which their lives intersect. The oldest, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is the perfect suburban wife: the house, three kids, and a caring husband, Bill (Dylan Baker). However, Bill has a skeleton in his closet. A skeleton that likes little boys. Bill contents himself at first with teen idol magazines. But soon, during a sleepover, he pathetically coerces his son’s best friend to eat a drugged sandwich and does the unthinkable. In the most chilling scene in the film, Bill admits his indecent obsession to his son, who feels rejected by his father.

Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful author, weary of meaningless sex with meaningless men. Her neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a computer geek, is first seen in a psychiatrist’s office, reciting explicit, sadistic fantasies he wishes to act out on Helen. When he dials Helen's number and obscenely berates her, she is so turned on by it, she *69’s him. However, the fact that Helen enjoyed the experience disgusts Allen. He eventually unplugs his phone and turns to the attentions of a sex-phobic neighbor (Camryn Manheim) who loves him.

Lonely Joy (Jane Adams) is a magnet for losers, including Andy, (Jon Lovitz) whom she politely dumps in the first scene. Andy, hilariously, struggles with the news of the break-up and then erupts in a fit of inept anger. Throughout Happiness, Trish and Helen openly express their concern for Joy, but their lack of any concern for anyone or anything other than themselves is completely transparent.

Their parents, Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) have decided to separate after forty years of marriage. Mona still clings to the union, but the self-absorbed Lenny has completely fallen out of love, not only with her, but, it seems, with life itself.

Solondz continually escalates our shock, horror, and laughter, with slapsticky gross-out humor as well as clever, witty and unbelievably frank revelations. Even after Bill’s climactic confession to his son, Solondz challenges our expectations again by presenting a surprisingly light Thanksgiving scene to close the film.

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