Review: Happiness (1998)

Happiness

Directed by: Todd Solondz
Starring: Jane Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker

Belying its title, Happiness is an unconventionally dreary look into the lives of the three Jordan sisters, their parents, and their acquaintances. First, there’s Joy: a borderline socially inept, somewhat aspiring songwriter/musician with a lot of growing up to do despite her age; the opposite of sister Trish, a middle-upper class housewife whose psychotherapist husband possesses an insatiable hunger for young children. This leaves us with the beautiful Helen, a woman whose mild success as a writer has left her with an ego the size of a small ship and a perpetual indifference towards the feelings of others. Coupled with some equally shocking subject matter, Happiness successfully manages to overstep the boundaries of traditional Hollywood filmmaking.

As you may have already guessed, Todd Solondz’s late 90s cult classic is pretty hard to stomach, and if you’ve by chance stumbled upon some of my earlier posts, you’d know that I absolutely loathe any material that settles on the topic of pedofilia or child pornography. Unfortunately, what Solondz has done is exceed what I ever thought was possible with a single film in this regard, thus putting my potential good standing with Happiness in jeopardy before this review actually gets underway. However, it’s hard not to acknowledge the creative risks he took with a screenplay as controversial as this, and all in all, the film is indeed very well written and executed as perfectly as can be.

Sticking with the script, it’s pretty easy to admire the now trite sense of innerconnectivity that’s present within all of the characters and the events that shape their lives, but Happiness‘ take on it isn’t entirely up to snuff. The biggest problems can probably be found within the excessively bleak tone that it can’t seem to break free of, despite Solondz’ obvious intentions, and the involvement of Boyle and Hoffman’s characters. Yes, it’s quite obvious that Boyle’s Helen is needed to accentuate the more family oriented moments the plot has to offer, but her involvement with Hoffman’s Allen is altogether unclear and his character’s story becomes lost amongst more poignant themes of sexual exploitation.

Additionally, Solondz’s overly melodramatic approach is refreshingly original in its own right, but for someone who’s not entirely used to a film like Happiness, aggravation can easily push its way to the forefront of your mind despite some mild black comedic undertones. Thankfully, a terrific ensemble cast manages to tackle the task at hand with relative ease, and it’s easy to recognize the worthwhile efforts put forth by everyone involved; especially Dylan Baker as a seemingly hopeless boy-hungry pedophile on the basis of the difficulties his character has to endure, especially as the film draws to a close.

All things considered, it’d be an understatement to say that Happiness isn’t for everyone. Solondz’s morbidly depressing script is single-handedly to blame here, but the sheer boldness of it all, some very ample direction and a great cast help put it back on the right track. Sadly, my inability to stomach some of the film’s more graphic moments have effectively tarnished my overall opinion of it, but it’s still very much worth a go.

Rating: 7/10

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