Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (1998)

3. Happiness

My introduction to the hilarious, deeply neurotic, and brutally honest world of Todd Solondz came, one day, when I caught “Happiness” on IFC, back when it was still the Independent Film Channel and they still actually showed those. I went into the film only knowing a little about Solondz’ films and was unprepared for it. Not so much for the dark places it went – I was vaguely aware of that – but for the big laughs it mined out of such dark subject matter. I’ve been a fan ever since and, revisiting “Happiness” for the first time in a while, find that the film resonates with me even more then it did before.

“Happiness” is Solondz’ two-and-a-half hour epic of upper-middle class suburban dysfunction. In interlinking stories, it follows one family and their satellites of friends and acquaintances. Lonely, unhappy Joy is envious of her more successful sisters, popular poet Helen and happily married mother of three Trish. But Helen is sexually unsatisfied, until a profane phone caller, secretly her plain next door neighbor, begins to call. Most explosively, Trish’s seemingly normal husband is a pedophile who is trying – and failing – to fight back his dark desires. What starts the dominoes of the sisters’ lives falling is their parents, married for decades, deciding to separate. Trish’s oldest son, eleven-year old Timmy, is searching for his first orgasm, asking the same questions that face everyone else: Not if happiness is attainable…. But if it even exist at all.

That plot synopsis probably doesn’t indicate it but “Happiness” actually is a comedy. And a very funny one.  The humor is most evident in Timmy’s storyline, which also conveniently sums up most of the movie’s themes. As a kid on the edge of sexual maturity, he is mocked at school for never achieving orgasm before. At film’s start, he doesn’t even know what “come’ means. Perhaps naively, he goes to his dad for answers. These moments provide some of the biggest cringe-laughs in the film. He casually asks his dad about “coming,” and his father frankly, if with some reluctance, provides answers. The most uproarious laughs appear when he discusses penis size with his father. The way Timmy nonchalantly compliments his father on his hypothetical girth, or provides updates on his on-going search for orgasm, is something an eleven year old probably wouldn’t think about but provides some hilarious, and uncomfortable, chuckles to grown-ups. The sickest joke of all is that Timmy’s dad is a sexual predator that targets boys in his son’s age group.

That storyline is the one most likely to turn people off of “Happiness.” Especially since, like everything else in the film, it mines dark laughs from the uncomfortable topic. Bill, somewhat ironically, is a psychologist, though one uninterested in his patients’ problems. When visiting his own shrink, Bill fantasizes about going on a killing spree, machine gunning innocent people in a park. This is the first indication that Bill is unwell, before we discover his predatory interest in young boys. The film is not unafraid to crack jokes about Bill’s pedophilia. He wistfully stares at Timmy’s friend, Johnny, an effeminate kid with a homophobic, overly macho father. The sickest, darkest laughs in the film occur when Johnny sleepovers at the Maplewood residence. Bill attempts to drug the boy and is repeatedly frustrated by his casual refusal to ingest the tainted foods. (The kid’s relaxed admittance the next day that he has blood in his stool is the primary sign that these moments are meant to be funny, sickening as they can be.)

However, “Happiness” isn’t just brave because it jokes about pedophilia. It also acknowledges the somewhat uncomfortable fact that pedophiles are also human beings. After tracking down and raping another one of Timmy’s friends, Bill becomes sickened by his own actions. He tries to tell his barely conscious wife, hoping for her forgiveness, but she doesn’t understand. After Johnny’s father sprays paint an incriminating message on their house, little Timmy asks his father about the rumors. Frankly and honestly, his father admits the evil things he has done and that he enjoyed them. And that, even though he’d never touch his son, he is sexually attracted to him. It’s a bracing, intimidating moment that the film approaches with frankness and sympathy. As Timmy breaks down in tears, his father wipes a single tear away from his own face. Like the movie he stars in, Dylan Baker asks the unthinkable of the audience: To feel sympathy for someone who rapes children. It’s a heavy question but the actor’s performance and the movie’s raw honesty earns it.

Another important character of the film is Joy, the youngest of the three central sisters. If Dawn Wiener didn’t already exist, Joy would be the definitive Todd Solondz protagonist. She is the black sheep of her family, still living at home into her thirties. The film introduces her on a date with Jon Lovitz’ Andy, a nerdy character that plays up the melancholy and rage that has always been under the surface of Lovitz’ usual comedic persona. Joy’s attempt to let Andy down gently backfires horribly. Joy says she’s happy but breaks down crying sometimes for no reason. Despite being a gentle, kind person who believes in the power of positive thinking, the universe is constantly shitting on her. (Her name is, I suspect, at least partially ironic.) After Andy kills himself, and his mother cusses her out, Joy weeps at her telemarketing job. When her co-workers can’t even remember who Andy was, and instead discuss the career of Edward James Olmos, she quits that job. Looking for meaning, she takes a scab position teaching English to immigrants. For her effort, she gets pelted with rotten vegetables by the strikers. While in class, she befriends Vlad, a Russian cab driver. More humor comes from this subplot, as Vlad nonchalantly admits to being a thief. Despite this, he successfully seduces Joy with a clumsy, if earnest, cover of “You Light Up My Life.” Though happy about this at first, this also goes sour for Joy. Vlad is a con artist, a possible woman-beater, and his undisclosed wife shows up at Joy’s job, attacking her. By film’s end, Joy has learned a hard lesson about trusting people, further proof that the film is ultimately sympathetic to her harsh treatment. Jane Adams is fantastic in the part of a down-trodden Pollyanna gaining some healthy cynicism.

Joy is also the most likable of the three sisters. It says a lot about how rotten Helen and Trish are that they remain the least appealing characters. Both pretend to be sympathetic to their sister’s woes. However, as soon as her back is turned, and sometimes to her face, they put her down. Trish openly refers to Joy as the least successful member of the family. Trish also doesn’t show any sympathy for people with problems, which slaps her in the face pretty hard when her husband’s proclivities come to light. Her catchphrase seems to be asking if anyone “watched Leno last night,” which is always met with stunned silence. As obnoxious as the clueless Trish is, Helen is actually more odious. Played by the perfectly shallow Lara Flynn Boyle, Helen goes on about the physically fit men that flock to her and all the sex she has. Her angsty poetry, all of it on the subject of child molestation, is hugely successful. Yet it’s not enough for Helen who, in her most disgusting moment, actually wishes she was molest as a child so her poetry would be more “deep.” She lives in New Jersey, in a low-rent apartment, for the sake of “irony.” She’s a disgusting hipster piece of shit that outranks a pederast and an obscene phone caller for least likable character in the film.

That obscene phone caller is actually one of the more relatable characters in “Happiness.” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Allen is human neurosis made flesh. He quivers, sweats, stutters, and weeps. He is introduced detailing his violent sexual fantasies but feels he’s too “boring” to ever attempt these fantasies in real life. (Allen fails to see the irony in this.) Actually, the thought of anyone reciprocating his fantasies seems to terrify him. He longs after Helen from across the hall but can’t bare to say more then two words to her. In order to express his desires, he calls random women on the phone, swearing sexually explicit scenarios at them. Another one of the film’s hilarious moments has Allen calling up Joy, who mistakes him for a potential suitor. By the time she realizes he’s a random pervert, Allen has already jerked himself to orgasm, which the film shows in explicit detail. Eventually, Allen calls Helen. These calls excite Helen, giving her the trauma she longs for, but Allen is too afraid to return her affections. Despite the sleaziness of his actions, Allen is deeply, unquestionably human. He longs for companionship but is terrified of rejection. When a co-worker attempts friendly conversation, he breaks out into uproarious, uncomfortable laughter, another funny moment. Hoffman’s performance oozes nervous energy but he maintains the gooey, emotional human center, showing that Allen is as deserving of human love as much as anyone.

Which he sort of comes close to receiving. An overweight, homely woman in his apartment constantly makes excuses to come to Allen’s door. She attempts to crack the neurotic man’s defenses and make a connection with him. Played by Camryn Manheim, Kristina is as immensely lonely as Allen. Her attempts to romance him are sort of sweet. She comes into his home, holding and kissing him after he falls into a drunken stupor. The most weirdly touching moment is when the two dance in a bar, to the sappy tune of Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.” But because “Happiness” is the sort of film is is, even Kristina is harboring a dark secret. She was raped by the apartment complex’s night watchmen and killed him in defense. She has since been, slowly, disposing of his dismembered corpse. She reveals this information while eating with Allen in a cheesy diner. Her graphic confession is routinely interrupted by a waitress bringing drinks or asking for desserts, another funny moment. While this reveal might seem like the last straw in the film’s library of shocks, it eventually reveals it purpose. After the shallow Helen shoots Allen down, uninterested in his schlubby appearance, he seeks comfort in Kristina’s arms, the two broken humans finding kinship with each other. 

Of all the subplots in “Happiness,” probably the least interesting is the one involving the sisters’ parents. Mona and Lenny have been married for a long time. Though they are emphatically not divorcing, Mona and Lenny’s marriage is ending. He no longer loves her. Actually, he doesn’t feel much of anything anymore. He simply wants to live out the rest of his life in solitude. His attempt to pursue an affair with another woman ends disastrously. When a doctor tells him he has a strong heart and could live another thirty years, he approaches the news with dread. Mona, meanwhile, doesn’t take the separation well. She attempts to buy a new home in a community of divorcees but is put off by the pushy saleswoman. She randomly breaks down in tears. Though a brilliantly cast-against-type Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara are great the parts, this storyline is easily the most dour and dreariest of “Happiness,” which is really rather saying a lot.

The conclusion of the film has the sisters reuniting with mom and dad around a dinner table. Timmy, with the help of a busty, sunbathing neighbor, finally achieves orgasm, which he enthusiastically announces to his family. That ends the film on another moment of uproarious cringe-humor. However, a line mere minutes before seems to address the movie’s blackly comic soul. When Joy suggests Helen writes a poem about her murderous neighbor, she bursts into inappropriate laughter. Helen clarifies to her sister that she’s “laughing with you, not at you.” Befuddled, Joy responds, “But I’m not laughing.” So is Solondz incriminating his audience for laughing at the foibles of these broken, confused people? Or maybe that line is directed at him. After all, “Happiness” is intentionally funny. Yet it never looses sight that these are people, no matter how dysfunctional they are. The film seems to conclude that the fleeting pleasure of orgasm is the only true happiness available to us but it never sneers at the lost souls also pursing true happiness. The film’s humor is more to diffuse the overwhelming sadness that would otherwise take over the story.

As in his previous films, the musical score is upbeat, in contrast with the film’s depressing content. An instrumental take on “You Light Up My Life” is a reoccurring motif in the film. Once again, Solondz turns to the simpering, sunshine tone of pop music as a counterpoint to his darkly psychological work. Running over the end credits is a song by Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix which Joy sang earlier in the film. The lyrics describe someone constantly on the look for happiness, even though its destined to always be outside of their grasp. That probably puts too fine a point upon it but it does successfully sum up the movie’s themes. It’s also a catchy number. The score draws heavily from the song, building off of its melody.

“Happiness” obviously isn’t for everyone. Its content is extreme, as are the mental issues of its characters. The screenplay doesn’t mince any words, describing their deviance and broken-down mental states in explicit detail. Though it mines laugh from their problems, the film is ultimately sympathetic to their plight. “Happiness” is powerful, funny, revealing, though never cathartic or uplifting. Such sentiments wouldn’t fit its blunt tone. And sometimes honesty is more important then tact. Those with the stomach for it will find “Happiness” to be a challenging and affecting film. It may be the definitive Todd Solondz movie. [Grade: A]

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