Pedophiles, stalkers and others seek 'Happiness'

by Amelia Arsenault | 11/17/98 6:00am

In "Happiness," writer and director Todd Solanz scratches the surface of normalcy and uncovers perversion, despair, and dysfunction. While this sounds like the recipe for a David Lynch film, it's really not. Solanz's characters aren't inexplicably evil or supernatural. They are unequivocally human and disturbingly empathetic. It is no mean feat to make an audience look candidly at serial pedophiles, murderers and obscene crank callers.

Rather than dismiss these lepers of society as aberrations and demons, Solanz forces his audience to recognize that they are not demons, but severely sick individuals who are, like the rest of us, grasping for that unreachable brass ring of happiness, and that they could be anyone, even that quiet man next door. It is not surprising that "Happiness" has sparked so much controversy.

October Films, the film's original distributor, dropped all rights to the movie under orders from Ron Meyer, the head of Universal, October's parent company.

But the film has as many supporters as it does critics. The new company, Good Machine, picked up the film and has chosen to market the film independently, even after the MPAA gave it an NC-17 rating. It won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Metro Media Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Although pedophilia seems to be the catch phrase for discussion about the film, there is far more to it than that.

"Happiness" features a large ensemble cast and a loosely structured and episodic narrative connected by the lives of the three Jordan sisters and the sexual deviants that surround them.

Joy (Jane Adams) is not joyful at all. Although shy and sweet, she is a jobless, friendless, loser.

In an effort to "do good" she quits her job in data processing to teach English to refugees. She arrives at the teaching center only to be pelted with rotten fruit by striking teachers and called a scab by her students. Her sisters, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), smug in their own lives dismiss her as doomed to failure and don't hesitate to let her know it.

Trish frequently remarks that she "has it all" in air quotes. What she doesn't know is that her loving husband and the father of her two children, Bill (Dylan Barker), masturbates to pictures of young teenage boys and drugs and rapes their 11-year-old son's friends (not shown on screen). But Bill isn't evil personified, although the film would probably be easier to digest if he was. He is tortured by his sick habits but he is powerless to control them. If anything, it is easier to empathize with Bill than with his vacuous, self-centered and mean-spirited wife Trish.

Bill happens to be the psychiatrist of Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight and pathetic pervert and chronic masturbater who gets his kicks by calling random women out of the phonebook. Allen fixates on his next-door neighbor, Helen, the sister of Trish and Joy.

Helen is the ultimate symbol of contemporary urban life who sleeps with beautiful men and is admired by all but nothing excites her, that is until Allen begins calling her. Allen is unsettled by Helen's arousal and begins to respond to the advances of his obese and unhappy neighbor (Camryn Manheim).

This heartwarming family portrait is rounded out by their parents, Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), who live in Florida. After 40 years of marriage, Lenny decides that he has had enough. He doesn't want an affair, he just wants to be alone. They begin the process of separating but never seem to get anywhere. Mona goes to a real estate agent (Marla Maples) but doesn't move out. They just continue living together unhappy and unfulfilled.

The film's overriding message is that no one is happy. Believing that happiness exists only compounds unhappiness. No one is fulfilled, and if they seem to be they're lying. Given all this doom and gloom you wouldn't expect this film to be a comedy. But it is, and its a good one.

As in his first film "Welcome to the Dollhouse" Solanz pushes the envelope of what will make an audience laugh. When discussing the murderer down the hall who dismembered the door man and put him in little Baggies, Helen remarks "Everyone uses baggies. That's why we can relate to this crime."

Solanz has an undeniable ear for dialogue, and the acting is strong across the board. Whether you approve of the subject matter or Solanz's treatment of it, "Happiness" is worth seeing. It might make you laugh and it will definitely make you think. Any film that makes you pity, laugh, and squirm in your seat in one scene can't be easily dismissed.