The dark dementia lurking beneath placid everyday life bubbles to the surface in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” a disturbing black comedy that, at bottom, is about all the trouble sex causes people. A skillfully made examination of the problems a host of interconnected characters face even approaching the ideal represented by the title, overlong pic sees the writer-director flexing his ambition considerably beyond that of his second feature, the 1996 Sundance grand prize winner, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” and successfully sustaining a tricky tone of low-key morbid humor most of the way. But some of the subject matter, including upfront treatment of prepubescent sexual curiosity and pedophilia, will raise hackles in numerous quarters, leaving October with a delicate marketing challenge on its hands this fall. Controversy and critical support will create want-see among discerning and adventurous specialty audiences, but breakout to a wider public will be difficult.
With its stylistic emphasis upon the facades that enforce “normalcy” and the codes of civilized behavior, combined with its urge to expose the decidedly impolite, often warped impulses that variously stew or erupt in human beings, “Happiness” often brings to mind “Blue Velvet.” David Lynch’s film may have drawn more directly upon an unmediated descent into its maker’s subconscious, and also served up more striking visual images, but Solondz’s picture is unsettling for the similar reason that it explores taboo territory with moral ambiguity, acknowledging its forbidden nature while stressing a common, and undeniable, fascination with it.
On a surface level, pic is overflowing with people’s mean, guilt-inducing behavior toward others, and Solondz’s seriocomic method is perfectly expressed by the opening sequence. In a formal restaurant, the sweet, vaguely hippyish Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) gently rejects her bashful, overweight suitor (Jon Lovitz), and he initially takes it well. Suddenly, however, he erupts with a vengeful fury, placing a curse on her. The turnabout is mildly shocking as well as funny, and the scene’s slow-burn comic pacing typifies the approach throughout.
Joy, it turns out, is the non-achiever among three middle-class New Jersey sisters. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) could be June Cleaver herself, a self-satisfied, perennially perky housewife with three kids and an ultra-straight husband, Bill (Dylan Baker), a suburban shrink who counts among his patients the overweight, sexually frustrated loner Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Allen, for his part, is obsessed with his next-door neighbor, the glamorous, sexually omnivorous, fabulously successful author Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), the third Jordan sister, who doesn’t give him the time of day.
That all is not right with Bill becomes clear when he fantasizes mowing down families in a park with an assault rifle, then masturbates to pictures in a teen magazine. At home, Bill honestly addresses the sexual anxieties of his 11 -year-old son, Billy (Rufus Read). Shortly thereafter, Bill develops a genuinely abnormal fascination with one of his son’s classmates, Johnny (Evan Silverberg).
Devoting protracted sequences to each set of characters, Solondz nicely distributes his attention, charting Joy’s progression from a thankless telephone sales job to a gig as a scab substitute teacher at an adult education class, where she meets an aggressive Russian cabdriver (Jared Harris) who seduces her and rips her off as well.
Some of the most amusingly twisted interludes involve Allen, whose sexually abusive prank phone calls to Helen feed her growing sense of hollowness and worthlessness. When she turns the tables on him and challenges him to come right over and do all the dirty things to her that he’s been threatening, he chickens out and takes solace in the attentions of another neighbor, the hefty Kristina (Camryn Manheim).
Backgrounding these lurid shenanigans is the marriage breakdown of the sisters’ parents, Lenny and Mona Jordan (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), after 40 years. Living a boring life in Florida, Lenny has decided he’s had enough and wants to be alone, and even the eager attentions of a lusty divorcee (Elizabeth Ashley) do not arouse his interest.
Despite the warped nature of much of the action, nothing comes close to the hushed and shocking power of dramatic climax, a stunningly frank exchange between Bill and little Billy in which the father reveals the full extent of his deviance. It’s difficult to think of a sequence in any other film quite like this one, and there is no question it will be too much for some viewers.
Solondz’s deliberate pacing and tendency to run all his scenes at length make the film seem every bit as long as it is; at two hours, 20 minutes, pic feels a bit indulgent and overextended.
Nonetheless, director’s control over his material is inarguable and extends uniformly over to his actors. Adams conveys a vulnerability and lack of fulfillment in Joy that is both touching and pathetic, while Stevenson gives a wonderful extra comic edge to her “has it all” hausfrau. Hoffman again proves himself one of the sharpest young character actors around, and Manheim excels as the sad-sack, sex-hating fat lady who has more secrets than anyone could have expected.
But Baker’s Bill, the all-American dad who finally faces the fact that he’s the all-American pervert, gradually emerges as the dramatic center of the picture. Thesp does an amazingly sensitive job with the ticklish part and is joined in this by Read, who is superlative as his inquisitive young son.
Maryse Alberti’s cinematography maintains a cool elegance, while Therese Deprez’s production design accentuates the sterility of the suburban and Florida settings. All other tech contributions are strong.