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There's a singer, a quiet man, who's lately achieved some small renown combining vivid, gloriously textured music with glum and brittle words. Every article I've ever read about him fastens onto that literal melancholy tooth and claw, as if the bright melodies were playing in a distant room. He's a sad-eyed loner, a self-aggrandizing drip, the writers opine; and I think they must all hear in a different language, for this singer's songs make me feel exuberantly raw, fiercely present--like I've been challenged to care.
Which is a long way of saying that Todd Solondz's third feature film Happiness wallows in oily suburban horrors but doesn't--at least for this viewer--strictly horrify. And I'm speaking as one who put off seeing Solondz's breakout movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, for two years because the subject of persecuted junior high loserdom cut too close to the bone. Content isn't destiny, however, and the writer-director conveys his tales of everyday human cruelty via wicked farce, sharply parodic dialogue, and, most significant, patience with the embarrassing and empathy for the embarrassed. True tragicomedies, his films find the thin skin between pain and absurdity and invite us to wear it.
Solondz's appalling vision--and the source of Happiness's humor and tragedy--is that junior high never ends, that its Darwinian rituals extend into adulthood. Everybody wants (to consume) the beautiful and successful, and they're consumed solely with themselves. The bottom-feeders have become so misshapen with loneliness that they cannot communicate with, let alone comfort, each other. And the "normal," average folk are so anxious to maintain their position that they must continually assault the losers (together with the meek, the weak, and the merely young). The only intimacy Happiness allows happens when two fall asleep together, and even that trust can be betrayed.
Unlike the girl's-eye view of Dollhouse, this film's perspective shifts among an extended clan of white, middle-class New Jerseyites. A couple of characters, particularly Lara Flynn Boyle's attenuated pseudo-intellectual Helen, are played simply for laughs (Helen loves New Jersey, she squeals: "I'm living in a state of irony"). Others, such as Helen's father (Ben Gazzara), sag the screen with their hopelessness ("I'm in love with nobody," Lenny tells his estranged wife. "I want to be alone"). In the main, however, Solondz's people combine the pathetic and the endearing, revealing ugly weakness and surprising strength, stark despair and short stabs of animal joy.
All those emotional extremes are on display in Happiness's genius opening dialogue, probably the most bilious breakup scene on celluloid. Two silent, but terribly emotive faces take turns filling the camera. When Joy (Jane Adams) finally talks, it's like a dam breaking. "Is it someone else?" her date Andy (Jon Lovitz) asks. "No, it's just you," Joy unthinkingly responds. Andy charges into a poignantly gleeful attack, and Joy crumbles. Helen's sister, Joy is the family failure. As such, she attracts insults; and Adams's rose-white face shows the imprint of every barb--along with the beauty that lurks under her skin like the (buried) possibility of self-acceptance.
Artless and hurting in a world of scheming bullies, Joy remains a sympathetic character even as she blithely crosses picket lines and meekly accepts one too many indignities. Her brother-in-law Bill (clean-cut Dylan Baker) is another story. A psychiatrist supporting a wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs, Bill fantasizes mass murder and jerks off to pictures of prepubescent boys. He's also a straight-talking, wise counselor to his own prepubescent son, who's worried about his penis size and inability, thus far, to come. Given Bill's predilections, these sex chats are creepy, but they're tenderly factual as well--which begs the bizarrely unironic question: Can pederasts serve as good, loving dads?
Solondz's film will no doubt be much compared to Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors, with which it shares its splintered narrative structure, tragicomic tone, and dismal view of humanity. The difference lies in the Your of LaBute's title: One doesn't have to screen Solondz's 1989 debut feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression--starring the director as a hapless, celebrity-chasing playwright--to see that (unlike LaBute) he includes himself among the twisted and the scorned. Wannabe musician Joy, transforming her misery into peppy song, appears Solondz's nearest alter ego; the director also seems to be mocking himself through the facile interior doubts of published poet Helen, who, like him, has fashioned art from sexual abuse ("If only I'd been raped as a child," she muses, "then I would know authenticity").
It's Solondz's patience with his monsters, though, that most distances him from the contemptuous misanthropy of LaBute. Where the latter crowds scenes with snarling dialogue, Happiness typically slides silence in and around its tart lines. In those struggling still moments, the characters disclose what they can't say, what they long for, how completely they've fallen from their dreams. Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lustful neighbor of Helen's, makes obscene phone calls and pastes postcards to the wall with bodily secretions; the camera sits with him--sweaty, pinkly chubby, breathing noisily--until his grossness wears out and lays desperation bare.
The director is clearly attached to blunt instruments of torture (the postcard touch was a bit much for me). Yet his point is not (just) to reach out and crush someone. (There is insolence here, I admit--cf., the analyst as pedophile.) Rather, Solondz works this acerbic brutality to highlight the incredible vulnerability of the human psyche. He knows that people need to feel love like they need to breathe. At the same time, our culture has erected status hierarchies of beauty and success that send people on a wild goose chase away from possible intimacies--and, still worse, make them feel sick with themselves. This catch-22 is harsh, heartbreaking, and ridiculous, and Solondz has crafted a movie to match.
In the final scene, Joy raises a glass and toasts: "Where there's life, there's hope." Her sentiment clanks to the floor, a leaden non sequitur. What I like to think of as Happiness's happy ending only emphasizes how far most of his characters are from feeling satisfied. The pleasure of this film arises from Solondz's anger and bravery--his and his actors' willingness to stew in shame and awkwardness so that we, the audience, feel recognized in our shame and awkwardness. Recognized, yes, and challenged to live more consciously. "I know you hurt, too," one character tells another. It isn't hope, but maybe it's the best we can do.
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