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'Happiness' Is All Relative

Movie review: Writer-director Todd Solondz goes to uncomfortable lengths to elicit laughs from a family's misery in the episodic film.


Don't be surprised when the laughter "Happiness" creates sticks in your throat: It's supposed to. Writer-director Todd Solondz has come up with a desperate comedy of longing, misery and misplaced need whose effects are exactly calibrated. But along with being a handful in ways it intends, "Happiness" is also troubling in ways it does not.

Solondz's previous film, the Sundance grand jury prize-winning "Welcome to the Dollhouse," shares with "Happiness" a willingness to cause discomfort and a desire to see how far the boundaries of what an audience will laugh at can be stretched. But in this work, Solondz has pushed the envelope to uncompromising lengths.

A loosely paced, episodic film that follows the personal lives of three sisters, their parents and acquaintances, "Happiness" is happy to feature jaw-dropping dialogue and situations not always found in modern comedies. On the menu to be talked about (though not necessarily seen) are murder, rape, suicide, possible dismemberment, masturbation, vomiting, visible ejaculation, obscene phone calls and, in a coup de grace that caused parent company Universal to insist that October Films drop distribution, the sexual assault of a drugged child. "I Love Lucy" this is not.

Yet it's a tribute to the acting as well as writing and directing that "Happiness" doesn't feel exploitative and can, against major odds, at times make you laugh. Solondz has an impeccable ear for current speech patterns, for our passion for fake cheerfulness and the way mean-spiritedness often masquerades as candor. He also has a gift for skewering the self-centeredness that makes the search for modern love both painful and futile and leads to the predominance, in this film at least, of hollow, disconnected and destructive lives. But even those strengths, as well as expert performances across the board, do not necessarily add up to enough.

The first of the three Jordan sisters to be met is the seriously misnamed Joy (Jane Adams). Vague, spacey and the despair of her sisters for being still single at 30, Joy has dreams of being a singer-songwriter, and she's responsible for the film's strongly ironic anthem. "Happiness, where are you, I've searched so long for you," Joy chirps mindlessly. "Happiness, what are you, I haven't got a clue."


Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is that fixture of contemporary life, the literary celebrity who barely has time to take a phone call from Salman Rushdie and complains, "Everybody wants me, you have no idea what it's like."

One person who wants her in the worst way is Allen (the always effective Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely guy who lives in Helen's building and bombards her with ferocious obscene phone calls. Allen, it turns out, has an admirer of his own, the seriously heavy Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who is forever knocking on his door with more information than he wants on the murder of one of the building's security guards.

Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), the third sister, likes to put her hands up like quotation marks and say, "I've got it all," but despite her three children and a successful therapist (Dylan Baker) for a spouse, Trish turns out to have the biggest problem of them all: Husband Bill is a child molester.

The molestation subplot has become "Happiness' " flash point, the place where people tend to draw the line. As interviews and the film itself makes clear, Solondz is interested in exploring Bill, not judging him, and, helped by Baker's empathetic performance, succeeds in playing against expectation. Bill, for example, turns out to be a thoughtful father to his own son Billy (Rufus Read), who is worried about his approaching sexual maturity.

But though these unhappy moments are as close as "Happiness" gets to emotion, the film is so coldly conceived that even this segment feels lacking. Solondz's filmmaking style tries to make a virtue out of flatness and distance, and is always more comfortable indicating where feelings would go than actually providing them. Combining this with "Happiness' " glacial pace and unnecessary two hour and 19 minute length, the result is an undeniably clever and provocative film that has sacrificed an essential element in bringing its vision to the screen. Not only can't these characters connect with one another, they have just as much trouble connecting with us.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: subjects talked about and sometimes seen include murder, rape, suicide, masturbation, vomiting, visible ejaculation, obscene phone calls and child molestation.


Jane Adams: Joy Jordan

Elizabeth Ashley: Diane Freed

Dylan Baker: Bill Maplewood

Lara Flynn Boyle: Helen Jordan

Ben Gazzara: Lenny Jordan

Jared Harris: Vlad

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Allen

Louise Lasser: Mona Jordan

Jon Lovitz: Andy Kornbluth

Camryn Manheim: Kristina

Marla Maples: Ann Chambeau

Rufus Read: Billy Maplewood

Cynthia Stevenson: Trish Maplewood

A Good Machine and Killer Films production, released by Good Machine Releasing. Director Todd Solondz. Producers Ted Hope, Christine Vachon. Executive producers David Linde, James Schamus. Screenplay Todd Solondz. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Editor Alan Oxman. Costumes Kathryn Nixon. Music Robbie Kondor. Production design Therese Deprez. Art director John Bruce. Set decorator Nick Evans. Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; the Landmark NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099; and Edwards Town Center 4, 3199 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.

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