Happiness (1998)

5 stars

One of the greatest modern transgressive American films ever made, directed by Todd Solondz with remarkable sensitivity and total control of tonal shifts.

Dir. Todd Solondz
1998 | USA | Drama | 134 mins | 1.85: 1 | English & Russian
R21 (passed clean) for mature theme

Cast: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle
Plot: The lives of several 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.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize (Cannes); Won Metro Media Award (Toronto); Nom. for Best Screenplay (Golden Globes)
International Sales: Good Machine International

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Very Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse/Mature


Review #1,688

(Reviewed on DVD)

Spoilers: No

I have seen a Todd Solondz film before in Life During Wartime (2009), which I wasn’t quite enthusiastic about, but it was an interesting if polarising work to say the least.  And having heard about one of his best and most controversial works, Happiness, for the longest time, I’ve finally managed to watch it, and by golly, why hadn’t I seen it earlier?

At the risk of being too overly excited about sharing a film that I really, really love, I must say Happiness is one of the greatest modern transgressive American films ever made.  Period.

Surely it is one of the finest movies to come out of the 1990s, from an up-and-coming filmmaker (at that point in time, it was only Solondz’s third feature, after his 1995 breakthrough, Welcome to the Dollhouse) of idiosyncratic and provocative sensibility.

Certainly more polarising than perhaps any other film in his career, Happiness is morally problematic (which is an understatement) and will only appeal to very open-minded audiences willing to fall under the film’s hypnotic spell.

“I wake up happy, feeling good… but then I get very depressed, because I’m living in reality.”

It touches on topics such as paedophilia, sexual fetishes and a host of other under-the-surface issues affecting the personas of various individual characters and their place in society and their families.

Beneath the normalcy of closed rooms, telephone calls and heart-to-heart talks lies a film whose characters, most of whom are sensitively developed, have innate psychological issues.  To see these ‘interior’ problems being actualised in dialogue is a gift, and Solondz’s screenplay here is extremely fascinating to behold in its nuanced and quiet power.

His direction of actors, particularly of child actors, from the first scene to the last, is also sublime.  He has total control of tonal shifts that could see scenes change from comedy to tragedy in a blink of an eye… and they work so well.

Happiness is very refreshing yet the film itself is almost nondescript—it is neither flashy or pretentious, but its intent to paint disturbed folks as normal people (or as people who know that they are different) is most courageous.

This film received a sequel in 2009, “Life During Wartime”, in which every returning character was played by a different actor.

Special mention to Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom I miss dearly, in an indelible early role as a socially-awkward man with the fetish of randomly calling up women to talk dirty.

In addition, Dylan Baker plays a psychiatrist and a loving father who sexually likes young boys in a great performance.  His conversations with his young son about penis sizes and orgasms are the highlights of this truly unforgettable masterpiece about the (ultra-desperate) need for human connection.

Grade: A+




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