Sartre's No Exit done over in suburban pastels, Todd Solondz's Happiness opens with a giant close-up of a sweating, just-dumped loser played by Jon Lovitz. Lovitz -- not a handsome man -- spews a litany of the looks-related reasons his date must have rejected him. Then, despite his pain, he offers his date a gold-plated ashtray inscribed with her name -- Joy. A nasty monologue follows. Cut to the title -- Happiness.
This is not a subtle film.
Looks are important to Solondz. Several other members of this movie's large cast are also introduced with ugly police lineup CUs, among them computer nerd/phone stalker Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his bored therapist Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker). Baker -- who resembles Fargo's William H. Macy with all the character leached out -- plays, in the film's notoriety-winning central role, a suburban dad and pedophile. Of course he's a therapist. In this film, even the healers are sick.
Solondz built his 1996 art-house hit Welcome to the Dollhouse around the rabbity features of an unhappy young girl who spent much of the film threatened with rape. Solondz also has rabbity, off-putting features. Indeed, the girl in Dollhouse looks very much like him, as viewers of Solondz's 1989 debut feature, Fear, Anxiety, and Depression, may recall. In that film Solondz portrayed a pretentious playwright who in one scene engages in neurotic soliloquy in the foreground while his girlfriend is being raped in the background. A theme emerges.
In Fear, Anxiety, and Depression Solondz's character wrote fan letters to Samuel Beckett. Happiness is less Beckett than Theater of Cruelty played as sitcom. Ping-ponging among five interconnected stories, Solondz repeatedly ends scenes on one-liners as the screen blacks out.
Solondz kindles sympathy for his many disturbed characters by presenting them at length as sweaty, desperate human beings. This is fine -- if he'd stuck to this path, Happiness would have been a much better film. But he cheats, using a trick perfected by Hitchcock: suspense employed to get the audience rooting for the villain. At one point the pedophile tries to drug a victim by having the boy eat a tainted sandwich. Solondz cuts from the uneaten sandwich to the kid to the doctor and back again to the sandwich. How many people will want that sandwich eaten?
Once Solondz has won sympathy for his devils, he turns around and undercuts that human emotion by doing something to make the audience laugh at the character. When the doctor tries to confess to his wife that he's "sick" she tells him to take a Tylenol. A third character is grotesque and miserable because of her weight, her plain looks, and also because of something she's done. Yet Solondz undermines Camryn Manheim's brave performance by prefacing her confession with her order for a chocolate sundae with strawberry ice cream.
Much of the film's comedy is that obvious, and all of it works to throw viewers out of the picture even as the characters' pain has drawn them in. Everything is awful, but nobody really cares. It's not for nothing the film's most willfully blinkered character keeps asking if everyone saw Jay Leno last night.
Of the movie's five stories, the tale of Dr. Maplewood's pedophilia has won Happiness its greatest infamy. His scenes are repulsive without being compelling; Dylan Baker is believably clammy but his compulsions are a mystery to him (and to us). To its credit, and unlike the recent Lolita, Happiness doesn't fetishize its preteen victims as sex objects. Pedophilia is presented as sordid, but then so is every other sort of sex in this movie.
Much more unsettling are the doctor's paternal chats with his sexually curious son William Jr. (Rufus Read). These scenes are interesting -- indeed, they're at the heart of the film -- but they lack credibility. I didn't believe father and son would converse the way they did. Ultimately their heart-to-hearts seem nothing more than a setup for some more sick jokes in the film's coda.
The Maplewood story is just one chamber of this movie's air-conditioned hell. Philip Seymour Hoffman carries the film's strongest scenes, those revolving around the phone stalker's pathetic life. He's the one character permitted a tender moment, when he chastely shares a bed with Manheim's madwoman. At the other extreme is the object of his attentions, Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), who writes poems called "Rape at 11" and "Rape at 12" and wishes she had been raped as a child -- because then her work would be better. As the film's resident artist she's at once its cruelest ironist and the director's stand-in.
Solondz reserves his most humiliating experiences for the one adult character who's not either numbed or a predator, Joy Jordan (Jane Adams). But most of the film's non-twisted characters might as well be dead for all they can feel. Ben Gazzara, the movie's patriarch, says as much right after having sex with a woman who's long desired him: "I don't feel anything." Later we hear his partner has had a stroke -- more humor.
Happiness is not without merit. Solondz and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, are masters at capturing a character's isolation in a single shot. Frame after frame of this film could be used to illustrate a coffee-table book on suburban anomie. The performances are also fine, in an acting class sort of way: Actor after actor delivers a character-defining monologue without really paying attention to his or her partner.
But then, in this film's universe, even your therapist falls asleep. Solondz is, of course, entitled to his worldview, though it's a profoundly alienating one. Serious topics like child abuse and horrible personal pain probably shouldn't be used as a basis for humor as cheap as this movie's. In the current issue of Filmmaker, Solondz allows that he thought the film would be "unbearable if it were not funny."
He's wrong. Because Happiness is funny, it becomes unbearable.