There is something incredibly unsettling about the central point of
Todd Solondz's Happiness. The point is that the pedophiles, murderers,
sex-phone stalkers and psychopaths of the film are closer to us than
we think (or care to think). But really, what disturbs me most are the
subtle parts about it. Like how a young boy who finds blood in his
shit after being raped is more concerned with missing school rather
than going to the hospital. Or how a large pervert eats ice-cream
while his neighbor tells him about the man she chopped up and
gradually disposes of.
This is the most discussion worthy film I have seen. It is not a
holocaust film, not a nature documentary, not a Michael Moore or Errol
Morris film, but a small 1998 dramedy hardly anyone of the general
public saw (or wants to admit they saw). But discussing Happiness is
some mad act of tight-rope walking if you ask me. What I can tell you,
I love and admire the characters because I know they are close to me.
I admire the loser Andy (Jon Lovitz) who is dumped at the beginning of
the movie by Joy (Jane Adams). He has finally realized just how nerdy
and unattractive he is to women, and he snaps. He curses out Joy (who
is already a sensitive little mouse of a woman) and says he is not
shit, but she is. Should it be ironic that he commits suicide shortly
thereafter? No, I think he is only proving his point further without
knowing it. Everyone in this film is staring into their own bleak void
of despair, but torture themselves (and others) by holding on. Andy is
brave enough to accept his existence as useless, and lets go, but not
without wreaking havoc on the life of a woman who gave him the time of
That opening scene is hilarious and powerful. Hilarious in the way
Andy almost acts rational and lets Joy leave emotionally unscathed (he
won't let her leave with the ash tray he bought her as a present).
Powerful in the way he accepts defeat and just stops caring.
I hate people who act out their every impulse, especially their most
deeply repressed ones. I hate them because I envy them. They have some
fraction of an idea of what they want (unlike me) so seeing them get
arrested for pedophilia, rape, zoophelia, murder, arsony, etc. both
sickens and satisfies me. At least they achieved a brief moment of
triumph... Don't we all deserve our own form of bliss at least once in
I liked to think that after watching Lars Von Trier's Antichrist there
was no longer a part of me that could be further exposed to deeper
despair (in terms of the cinema). While watching Happiness, I sank
into my couch laughing in a mad hysteria, accepting my own futility
and realizing the small potential I must capitalize on before it is
Happiness centers on the Jordan family. The father is Lenny (Ben
Gazzara), who wants a separation from his wife, Mona (Louise Mona).
They have been married for years and have three grown daughters. Lenny
wants to leave not to have sex with other women, but to just be alone
and die in piece. He does leave, and Mona is shattered. Lenny has
nothing against Mona, but she thinks otherwise.
There are two scenes of heart-wrench and hilarity involving the two
after they separate. The first is when Mona is about to run over a
woman she suspects of having an affair with Lenny, but then veers at
the last second and smiles at her. The second is when Lenny goes to
the doctor to see if he has any cancer or tumors. The doctor says
there is nothing to worry about, and that Lenny may even have 40 years
left in him if he stays away from salt. How that scene plays out is
like a "clown goes to a doctor" joke, especially when Lenny begins
applying salt to his foods.
I have something against Mona: her weakness. If Mona's children began
to act up and ruin her life, there would be nothing Mona could do
about it but feel sorry for herself. I want to see more mothers slap
the shit out of their kids and not turn to anti-depressants while the
little scum that once lived in their womb declare themselves king of
the household. I want to see wives slap the shit out of their husbands
when they want a divorce for something as stupidly simple as "being
alone". I may be too young to understand, but I would rather be wrong
instead of pretending there are no such issues...
The Jordan's youngest daughter, Joy, is spiraling out of control after
her final encounter with Andy. She feels that everyone hates her and
she is useless, which she is. There is nothing wrong with being
useless, and the best intentioned people usually are, we just keep our
cool until someone is brave enough to call us on our shit. Her journey
throughout the film never has a clear point, but I can relate to her
insecurity and gullibility (she has sex with a charming foreign man
who seduces her effortlessly, only for her to see that he has stolen
The middle daughter, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a somewhat popular
author of teenage rubbish. Helen is slowly disappearing into anonymity
when she cannot figure out what to write next (she wishes she had been
molested as a child so she could have better subject matter). She gets
an anonymous phone call from Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and has
violent sexual threats thrown at her. She has been waiting for this
kind of thing, and calls him back asking who he is.
Allen is her next door neighbor that is terribly shy and fat. He goes
home after work, gets ridiculously drunk and opens the yellow pages.
He calls random women, masturbates, and sexually harasses them until
he climaxes. He tells his therapist, Bill Maplewood, the pornographic
fantasies he has about Helen, and even then there is such a softness
to his words that Bill begins to fall asleep.
The most painful thing Allen tells Bill is "She thinks I'm boring".
Bill knows he is boring, and is poor at appearing interesting, but how
many of us could stay interested? Allen is the kind of guy that
angrily puts on his clothes in the morning, thinking in the back of
his head "I look terrible". He is harmless, even kind of adorable, so
his obese neighbor Kristina (Camryn Manheim) asks him out on a date to
a baseball game. When Allen turns her down, she walks back to her room
for another lonely night of television and ice-cream.
The therapist Allen sees is Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker Hall). Bill is
married to the oldest of the Jordan sisters (Cynthia Stevenson) and
has a son. Bill is a great dad who has more patience with his kids
than all the fathers (and mothers) I have met. He is the ideal dad I
wish I had from Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show. But the
fact is Bill is an in-closet pedophile. He has not laid a finger on
one of his kin, but instead masturbates to child celebrity magazines.
His wife is not aware of this, and we suspect they have not had sex in
Bill is on the brink of insanity. He constantly fantasizes about
shooting up a public park with a machine gun. He finally loses his
grip when his son has his little league partner over for dinner. In a
stretch of film that is both terrifying and skillful, Bill drugs his
family's deserts. When they all pass out, he sodomizes the young boy
his son has had over for a friendly night of video games.
Bill will not resort to destroying the lives of his children, but he
cannot see he is damaging them even more by raping all their school
buddies. When one of the boys Bill raped suffers from internal
injuries and is hospitalized, rumors spread around his son's school
that he is a serial rapist. Bill's stories cannot add up, and his
family begins to suffer. In a deeply damaging scene that could not
have been better acted or written, Bill's son asks him if he is a
pedophile. Bill, without a single flicker of mercy or restraint (but
with an incredible expression of sadness), tells his son everything.
This is eventually said:
Son: Would you f**k me?
Bill: No, I jerk off instead.
I was floored. I felt like crying and laughing, and I did neither. As
the screen pans out, all the misery and insanity slowly settles into
me as the viewer. All I can do is observe a monster like Bill, not
condemn or attempt to understand him (or even call him a monster). By
Bill giving the most straightforward of explanations to his
pedophilia, he is saving his son all the more terrifying truth no
child should know (and no adult could understand).
All these stories are equally compelling and all have a profound
effect. Each life comes together by the end of the film, and I was at
first angered by the blunt bravery of the final shots, but soon
realized just how brilliantly sick it is (the cycle shall continue!).
Happiness is a wake up call for us to look around. See the people we
don't know and do. To look at ourselves and come to terms with our
selfishness or pathetic kindness. This is a beautiful, unforgettable
movie in the most human of ways. It is not a protest against any of
the subject matter presented, but a painful, resounding cry of
loneliness that will echo in the hearts of film lovers everywhere.