Todd Solondz followed up his Sundance-festival favorite, Welcome to the Dollhouse, with and even blacker black comedy where everyone is riddled with fear, anxiety, and depression in their constantly thwarted search for Happiness.
How well this film holds up depends on your point of view. Solondz’ deeply cynical attitude about every aspect of modern American life (and the humans who fill it) connected deeply with Gen Xers who had grown up in a world of soulless yuppie materialism their Boomer parents had created. Happiness makes it clear that love doesn’t really exist; we’re all losers, constantly rejected by those we crave, but also constantly rejecting others in the same way without realizing it. Everyone has everything they could possibly need from modern life, yet they’re eternally empty and alone.
That’s a far cry from today’s millennial sensibility- a generation who grew up being BFF’s with their parents in an economic system that has failed them in every possible way. It’s hard to guess how this kind of bleak humor clicks with current audiences, especially in a culture uncomfortable with awkward situations and offensive ideas.
But Solondz revels in discomfort; he pushes the boundaries of taste to the max, making light of rape, suicide and pedophilia with ease. More cynical and neurotic than Woody Allen, more bitter than resentful than… well, pretty much everyone… Solondz is the perennial geek living out his revenge fantasies on the beautiful women and macho jocks that have shunned him all his life. Every time two people seem on the verge of achieving a genuine human connection… they don’t. Solondz won’t afford anyone such a break.
Like Short Cuts for cynics, Happiness weaves around skewering its ensemble cast, which includes the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sad sack full of rape fantasies he’d love to carry out with- but will never dare try with- Lara Flynn Boyle, his neighbor and a successful writer who nevertheless hates herself for the phony that she is. Her sisters are a mess, too- Jane Adams, an eternally-depressed and mousey folk-singer trying to do something meaningful with her life, and Cynthia Stevenson, a middle class soccer mom married to a well-to-do therapist (Dylan Baker) who happens to be attracted to little boys, which, to his credit, he’s honest about.The sisters’ parents, Ben Gazzara and Lousie Lasser, are going through divorce (of course) and… well… you get the idea.
Solondz’ subsequent films have been hit-or-miss: moments of comic genius mixed in with a lot of cold and humorless storylines- but Happiness is one time he nails his style perfectly, crafting a bleak comedy with just enough of the funny mixed in with brutal honesty to keep us all from drowning.
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