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A movie directed by Todd Solondz

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One of the deepest, most thoughtful dramas ever made.

  • Jul 18, 2011
**** out of ****

Denied its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and the subject of much post-criticism and controversy around the time of its release, you can take one good glance at Todd Solondz's "Happiness" and see what all the goddamn commotion is about. It is amongst one of the most difficult, disturbing films I've seen; and it tackles some of the ickiest and oddest subjects that most films don't care to touch. Let's just say that if you're sensitive to the graphic depiction of anything particularly vulgar, you shouldn't see this movie, and therefore you might as well stop reading my review.

The film deserves every bit of its controversy but none of its criticism. "Happiness" deals with themes of sexuality, masturbation, pedophilia, rape, and as a nice change from the sexual stuff, murder. It is being billed as a dark comedy, and I must admit that it is one. There are tones of human sadness and desperation, as it is the film's duty to present people who we would look down on in disgust in real life, and allow them some sympathy from the audience. This is good; this is interesting. Solondz made his movie knowing that a LOT of people would not want to see it, but I suppose he thinks like I do; the ones who deserve to see and appreciate his movie can look past the content and see the bigger picture.

Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a sexually desperate and troubled man. He is secretly affectionate of his neighbor; a woman named Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). She is truly beautiful, so much so that Allan believes she is too good for him. He sees himself as a fat, pathetic loser who will never "get" sex, and who will never find love. He speaks his mind to his therapist Bill (Dylan Baker, in one of his best performances), who has other things on his mind, especially in the one session between patient-and-psychiatrist, where Bill can't take his mind off his duty as the grocery-getter for his own family.

Bill lives happily with his wife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and his two sons (the most narratively important one named Billy) and a daughter. While all seems well, all is not. Bill has a bit of a problem within himself. After Allan's appointment, Bill purchases a magazine depicting photographs of young men, and masturbates to the images. And afterwards, he just comes home, as if nothing had happened.

Bill's son Billy has a dream; to "come", as all of his classmates have. In a very comedic conversation between father-and-son, the two talk about how to "come". Bill asks his son if he has "practiced", and the son replies that he has; but it just hasn't worked out. That's what you call dark humor; the awkwardness and realism of the moment.

But wait...there are still three other stories to be told in "Happiness". One of them involves Joy, the youngest sister in the sisterhood which also includes Trish and Helen. The woman's name is kind of ironic; because Joy, the woman, cannot experience actual joy, as a feeling. She's frequently sad because she's just dumped a nice, kindly man who perhaps loved her, and even offers a fancy ashtray out of admiration, but takes it back and exclaims "this is for the woman who loves me". Then, there's Allan's other neighbor Kristina, who secretly loves Allan, but also has a nasty, brutal secret of her own to deal with at the moment. Lastly, the mother of the sisters is pondering a divorce from her husband, who might (or to be honest, just out-right DOES) love another woman.

Allan's lack of love, Bill's pedophilia, and the second apartment-neighbor's dark secret are all what makes up "Happiness" and its story; but also its controversy. I think what disturbs people the most about the film is the fact that Dylan Baker's character is a pedophile; one of the most hated people in the entire world. Yet, his character is treated with sympathy, honesty, desperation, and much, much more. Bill can't choose who he is; just like homosexuals, bisexuals, or people of a certain race cannot decide who they are and who they want to be internally. I felt bad for most of these characters, and whoever I didn't care for just wasn't worth it. Some characters are, as some would say, despicable; but I feel this is merely Solondz's intent. He is a genius; and he has made a film that matches his wit.

So, will you like "Happiness"? I am calling it a great film; yes I am. But it is not for everyone. It is not exploitative of its material; it understands that there is unhappiness in the air, and certain types of people (example: pedophiles) who need some genuine sympathy. Writer-director Solondz is not asking us to sympathize for all pedophiles after witnessing his film in which we meet the "Bill" character, but after a scene such as the one in which a tearful Bill admits to his answer-seeking son that he has such a fascination with younger boys, it's hard not to feel the tenderness of the moment. I loved that scene as well as any other scenes in "Happiness". This is a beautiful, brutal, bold, and riveting work of art. There was humor (that I laughed at) and sentiment (that I was teary-eyed at). For this, I will watch any other film that Solondz makes, because I know for certain that it will be worth watching, good or not.

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More Happiness (1998 movie) reviews
review by . September 03, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: solid cast delivery, story line     Cons: none     The Bottom Line: "Happiness  How did you get to be happiness?  How did you get to find love, real love?"  ~ Goldfrapp     Totally unlike 13 Conversations ..., I found this movie, Happiness, quite a bit more interesting in their search for happiness. Certainly it was dark in many aspects, but to let that overshadow the entire movie really undermines the story. …
review by . December 10, 2007
This film is indeed marvelous. Todd Solondz combines really absurd situations and embarrassing moments -some of which most of us do encounter in daily life and some we hopefully won't- with serious issues. Thus, this film provides not only a very high degree of entertainment -Solondz' sense for irony is exceptional-, it gives you a critical view on society without judging or condemning or forcing you to think one way or the other. I am genuinely impressed by Happiness and its cast full of great …
review by . March 20, 2003
posted in Movie Hype
Man, this is difficult, difficult movie!! It's packed full of thoroughly unlikeable characters. And they do some awfully uncomfortable things.The actors are all outstanding. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a loser (what a stretch!!) who starts making obscene phone calls to his next door neighbor (Lara Flynn Boyle), who enjoys them. What happens when they meet? That's just one sample of the kind of interactions you might see in this movie. It plays a little like MAGNOLIA, but without much of the hopeful …
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Ryan J. Marshall ()
Ranked #11
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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About this movie


Building on the darkly comic angst of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, Todd Solondz's HAPPINESS conveys suburban desperation and frustration on a larger scale than his previous film. The ensemble cast of characters centers around the lives of three sisters: Joy (Jane Adams), an awkward, naive, and unlucky musician; Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a beautiful, self-obsessed writer; and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a conservative housewife who is married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist harboring an unhealthy fascination for young boys. Other dysfunctional characters include the sisters' unhappy parents, Lenny and Mona Jordan (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), and the lonely, sex-obsessed Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who lives next to Helen and goes to Bill for therapy. <br> <br> At once both scathingly funny and shockingly bleak, HAPPINESS addresses subjects that most films are afraid to touch, including pedophilia and masturbation. Unapologetic and unflinching, Solondz's film features bold performances from the...
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Director: Todd Solondz
Release Date: 1998
MPAA Rating: Unrated
DVD Release Date: April 27, 1999
Runtime: 2hr 19min
Studio: Lions Gate
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