By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we shamelessly promote and defend some of the “worst” films ever made. In our twelfth edition, we hash through Todd Solondz’s 1998 feature, Happiness, voted by Premiere Magazine as one the 25 Most Dangerous Films. While we may not agree, we would like to issue fair warning to our readers; this one is pretty fucking heavy. Watch at your own risk.
My introduction to Todd Solondz’s films was in high school which in retrospect might explain a lot about me. Numerous were the times when a dear friend of mine would stated that her favorite movie was Welcome to the Dollhouse, and since I trusted this person’s wonderfully bizarre taste, I rented a copy, watched it a handful of times, and promptly fell completely in love with her. While that all ended in just a little more than a short-lived high school romance, my love for Todd Solondz lived on, and many of my less-than-understanding friends have suffered due to this pseudo-obsession.
For those of you unfamiliar with Solondz’s work, it could be summed up, really, with two words: incredibly uncomfortable. His themes are often comprised of an unblinking exploration of underage sex, suicide, abortion, pedophilia, and rape, often set against the complementary backdrop of the American nuclear family. Happiness, however, may be Solondz’s most remarkably difficult piece to digest. Despite its massive success at Cannes, Universal actually dropped the film due to it’s content prior to wide release.
Like the majority of Solondz’s films, Happiness takes place in suburban America, centering on the intermingling lives of a single family. In this case, it’s the Jordans: Trish, (Cynthia Stevenson) a seemingly happy Rockwellian housewife is married to Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist with dreams of mass murder and, unbeknownst to Trish and their three children, a raging affinity for pedophilia. Trish also has two sisters, Joy (Jane Adams) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). Joy is viewed by the family as the “weak one” and, while getting over the recent suicide of an ex-boyfriend (Jon Lovitz) and coaxing a semi-aspiring musical career, finds herself entangled in the life of Russian con-man, Vlad (Jarred Harris). Helen, “the successful one” is a celebrated writer who spends her time bedding gorgeous men, privately lamenting her lack of genuine inner pain, and thoroughly enjoying the anonymous obscene phone calls she receives from her neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Lastly, we have Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona (Louise Lasser), parents of Trish, Helen, and Joy, who have decided to divorce after 40 years of marriage. Though Lenny and Mona’s story is slightly obscured from the main plot, their divorce seems to be the epicenter of the earthquake about to destroy the family.
Happiness focuses on a somewhat depraved, behind-the-scenes view of the human life. (Or very depraved, depending on your point of view.) With broad, yet impressively detailed strokes, Solondz encourages the viewer to painfully consider what potentially lies beneath all of our societal masks. Despite the overt struggles or evils of each character, we are indeed led to an understanding that the problems these characters face are nothing more than a result of a desperate and disorderly quest for personal contentment. While the subject matter can be rather unsavory, Solondz’s commentary is universal. How often is our own pursuit of happiness driven by greed, lust, envy, or just plain false hope?
Years after my first viewing of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and with a fully blossomed infatuation with Solondz, I again found myself having some bubbly feelings for a close friend. In a disastrous attempt to woo her with my irresistibly obscure (thus “cool”) taste in film, I invited her over to watch two movies with me. The first was Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, which had just been released on DVD and I had not seen. The second was Happiness, which I owned and had seen more times than what would be considered normal. What I didn’t know, however, is that instead of watching a pretty soft/potentially sweet movie about divorce (something her and I could both relate to), and a really disturbing movie that would allow me to gauge “how weird is too weird” with this person, I invited her over to watch not one, but two movies that graphically featured little kid jizz. Sorry for the spoiler, but you’ll thank me later, as I assume that the Squid and the Whale / Happiness double feature is a common first date mistake.
5) In 2009, Solondz released a sequel of sorts to Happiness titled Life During Wartime. The film features the same characters, years after the events of Happiness, but played by different actors, most notably, Ally Sheedy as Helen and Paul Ruebens as Andy.
4) Jack Black, Jon Lovitz, and James Urbaniak were all considered for the role of Allen, ultimately played by Hoffman. Lovitz did, however, end up with the role of Andy, and regardless of being on screen for a mere 5 minutes during the opening, Happiness is the first thing listed under “known for” on Lovitz’s IMDB. Additionally, a deleted, and seemingly impossible to find, scene of Andy’s suicide reportedly exists. If anyone finds it, hook me up, please.
3) The film poster and cover art was drawn by DoomRocket favorite, Daniel Clowes.
2) Todd Solondz makes a small cameo as the doorman in the apartment building in which Helen and Allen live. This is the only film, shy of his 1989 short, Fear, Anxiety and Depression, were I’m aware that Solondz appeared in his own film.
1) For your own peace of mind, the intensely uncomfortable scene in which Bill’s son, Billy, inquires about his father’s after-hours activity, you should know that the two actors were not actually in the same room. The scene was shot separately so the younger actor wouldn’t know Dylan Baker’s responses. So breathe a little.