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
When a film opens with a scene between two people, one breaking up with the other, culminating in the dumped calling the dumper "Shit", you know you're in for something dark with this film. When the scene is followed by the simple opening title "Happiness" written in pretty cursive writing, you know it's going to be ironic as well. "Happiness" was written and directed by Todd Solondz, the mind behind the film "Welcome to the Dollhouse", a film that was fantastic but really hard to watch if the viewer has any kind of heart. "Happiness" follows in the same vein, though this time, instead of centering around one character, Solondz puts a New Jersey family at the center of the film and develops new characters through their relationship with the family.
Overseeing the family is Mona Jordan (Lasser), the matriarch of the family who has just been told by her husband that he no longer loves her. Lenny Jordan (Gazzara) is simply sick of being tied to someone continuously, while insisting that there is "no one else". Joy Jordan (Adams) is a serially employed thirty-something single female who is constantly belittled by her family and ignored by society. She is most close to her sister Trish Maplewood (Stevenson), a stay at home mother with three kids who likes to say she "has it all". Her husband Bill (Baker) is a psychiatrist who outwardly appears to be a stoic family man, but is actually a pedophile who, within five minutes of the introduction of his character, goes to a convenience store to pick up a teen heartthrob magazine so he can masturbate in the back seat of his car to the pictures of the young boys on the cover. The third sister in the family is Helen Jordan (Boyle), an author recently made semi-famous for an angst-ridden published diary (filled with lies) who has a very high opinion of herself and a way of making others feel badly about themselves while never raising her smooth-as-glass voice or making her jabs obvious. Her neighbor Allen (Hoffman) is in love with her, only he is so inept at socialization and unable to approach her that he attempts to satisfy his desires by first making random obscene phone calls to various women, and then making Helen a target herself. Another neighbor, Kristina (Manheim) is an insecure, quiet woman who is constantly trying to befriend Allen, possibly as a love interest.
There is quite a cast of characters to this ensemble picture, and the story lines become intricate and increasingly more complicated as the film progresses. "Happiness" is filled with excellent character actors (at the top of the list would certainly be Hoffman) but the most compelling character and character portrayal would be Baker's character of Bill Maplewood. Obviously, a film that deals unflinchingly with pedophilia and child rape, particularly under the guise of a "dark comedy" is going to be held under closer observation, but even under this scrutiny, Baker's portrayal is absolutely flawless. While his character is a monster, Baker is able to provide a human side to it, where I was left thinking he was a terrible man, but also had sympathy for him because he had a sickness. There are not many actors I can think of that could pull off this role as stupendously as Baker did. Baker was the clear star of the film in my opinion, but the performances of every person in the cast were fantastic as well, particularly the young boy who played Baker's oldest son.
As I stated earlier, "Happiness" is rife with irony because on the surface, everyone is miserable. However, it soon becomes relatively clear that this is just how these people are, and each of them to some extent ARE living in happiness, as misguided as it may appear to be. Everyone ends up being hurt or disappointed on some level, but they are still together and seem to be satisfied to be in the destructively emotional rut they are in. Solondz, who really has his finger on the pulse of misery, (Just like when, upon hearing that Stephen King gets inspiration for his books from his dreams I was glad that he at least makes millions from being terrified at night, I would hate to get a front row seat in Solondz's psyche) really gives the audience something to chew with "Happiness". I loved the chances he took with the subject matter, I loved the performances, and I loved the film as a whole because it was just so damn well done. It's not an easy film to watch, and it's not an entirely pleasant one to watch at times, but it is truly a piece of genius with the way it is intricately put together; envision trying to glue tiny shards of crystal into place with a tweezers the characters in "Happiness" are as fragile and ready to shatter at any moment, whether they can see it for themselves or not. 8/10 --Shelly
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