Not a warm puppy

Jonathan Lethem reviews 'Happiness,' directed by Todd Solondz and starring Jane Adams, Dylan Baker and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Published September 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Todd Solondz's "Happiness" is a masterpiece.

OK, "Happiness" might be a masterpiece. I'd have to do more than see it again to really know -- I'd have to see it again five or 10 years from now, when the distractions and diversions of its present context have fallen away. "Happiness" is a good enough film, though, to deserve its audience's best efforts to banish distraction and view it clearly. A heralded entry in this month's New York Film Festival, "Happiness" was controversial before release for its scrupulous depiction of the daily life of a child molester -- though that, it should be said, is only one of several threads in this two-hour-plus, multiple-story-line black comedy. Dropped by its intended distributor (who scored a considerable success with Solondz's previous film, "Welcome to the Dollhouse"), the film has been released without a rating by a unique consortium brought together expressly for this purpose.

Beyond such specific controversies, the scruffy, Gen-X-ish Solondz is being presented as the next independent film savior to an audience recently burned by overinflated expectations -- recall dragging your way through the last hour of "Boogie Nights"? Did you get your hopes up for "Your Friends and Neighbors," or "Pi"? With so many fresh disappointments, it would be natural to approach a movie with the buzz of "Happiness" skeptically. The film is a dark and deadpan comedy of dysfunctional manners meant to skewer the fagade of suburban family life -- a description that makes it sound all too trendy and contemporary. But "Happiness" is bigger than the modish aura that surrounds it, and it will be considerably more lasting. Solondz's accomplishment justifies comparisons with the best work of Woody Allen and John Cassavetes, those quintessentially American auteurs.

"Happiness" opens with a pre-credit sequence, where at a table in an expensive restaurant the mousy Joy (Jane Adams) is breaking up with her nebbishy suitor Andy, played with deadpan brilliance by Jon Lovitz in his only scene. Joy is the youngest of three sisters whose family and relationship melodramas provide this musing, associative film with its modicum of structure. She lets Andy down as gently as possible, blinking her big dewy eyes and pursing her pasted-on smile as she waits for him to accept harsh reality. Lovitz struggles pathetically, then lashes out, hilariously inept even in his fury. Here the audience settles in, begins to find its comfort zone and laughs. The darkness of this film will work within acceptable limits, the scene seems to say. There's nothing about Andy's pain or Joy's shyness that goes beyond the comedy-of-discomfort of Albert Brooks' first few films, or the grimmest Woody Allen -- say, "Stardust Memories."

I dwell on this because I believe Solondz's strategy is quite intentional -- even his use of a familiar television actor works to assure us of our superiority, our lack of risk at the outset. In the next scene he turns our comfort against us. Ignoring the characters he's troubled to introduce, he throws us into the middle of a psychiatric session, where the impossibly tormented Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is rehearsing sadistic sexual fantasies concerning his neighbor Helen. Hoffman (who played the gay camera assistant in "Boogie Nights") plays Allen as the sort of invisible, pasty-browed, overweight bureaucrat whose innermost thoughts we never wish to glimpse. The language of the scene is explicit, searing and disruptive. Manipulating slasher film conventions, Solondz forces us to fear for the duration of the film that Allen will make his violent fantasies real. Though we'll laugh again, many times, during this most disturbing of comedies, our equilibrium never fully recovers.

Solondz calmly unveils one garish shock after another, always turning the screws a few notches past the point we'd expected. Often the breaches of decorum are verbal, as when a father blithely offers to measure his own penis to assuage his son's insecurities. Other times Solondz resorts to slapstick come shots. The director devilishly borrows moves common to sillier films, like those of John Waters or the Farrelly Brothers, and uses them for his own strikingly original purposes. The plot, such as it is, can't be summarized. Allen's menaced neighbor, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), is a successful writer and another of the three sisters. She's drawn as the chilliest of ice maidens, manipulating boy-toys and her family alike, but yearning idiotically for a rapist -- past or present -- to unmake her and by doing so give her empty life some meaning. We relocate Joy, who's stumbled into an exploitative liaison with a Russian cab driver (the chameleonlike Jared Harris). She's the sort of enabler who, when she asks the cabbie whether he misses his native land and receives the reply, "Fuck the cunt of Russia!", muses apologetically: "Well, I guess it's better to feel that way." We also meet the sisters' parents -- magnificently portrayed by Ben Gazzara and the rarely seen Louise Lasser -- who play out an end-of-the-line divorce that suggests the futility of their younger counterparts' romantic strivings.

But by design these other plot lines take a back seat to the horrors of the middle sister's ostensibly perfect family life: She's married to a blossoming rapist of preadolescent boys. Solondz dares to portray abuse not in the past, buried deep within a sympathetic victim; instead he shows it unfolding before us in the cinematic present, with the molester as the heart of the viewer's understanding. In the actor Dylan Baker he's found a marvelously direct performer to stand at the center of his nightmare tableau. This plot's now-controversial climax is also the film's: a devastatingly honest conversation between father and son, which ends in tears and silence and with a void opening beneath their feet and ours, a void so black it threatens to swallow the laughter and even the horror that went before it, a void that threatens to swallow the movie. Remarkably, Solondz rescues us and his film in a deft, airy coda set several months later at the now-restructured family's Thanksgiving dinner.

It's tempting to point out that the horrific father-son chat shouldn't have taken place at all, that turns in the plot show that the police should have prevented it from happening. But the film is too carefully written for this choice to be a lapse. It's precisely that the scene is incredible by any realistic standard that confirms the subjective and dreamlike nature of Solondz's vision in "Happiness." The film is a bleak cartoon: As Helen says on the phone, speaking of New Jersey, "I'm living in a state of absurdity." Solondz's priorities have nothing to do with realism. Like Todd Haynes in "Safe" or Mike Leigh in "Naked," he veers into a kind of subtle expressionism to ferret out deeper feelings about his characters, and ours.

Solondz's art has something in common with the novels of William Gaddis, or the songs of Bob Dylan: Like those towering American artists, his vision is surpassingly caustic -- even, at times, vindictive. We can certainly yearn for magnificently accusatory artists like these to grow to find a greater sympathy in their work, a greater forgiveness. "Happiness" is so unrelenting that it may prompt such yearnings; I, for one, would be thrilled to see Solondz's heart open in his future work. But it would be a mistake to flinch from the greatness of "Happiness" in the meantime.

By Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, and the story collection "Lucky Alan" and the novel "Dissident Gardens."

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