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The Boston Phoenix Un-Happiness

Welcome to Todd Solondz's shithouse

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Shock has become such a common effect for independent filmmakers lately that a real shock would be a movie that doesn't rely on it. Nonetheless, it's still a surprise to see Todd Solondz, whose previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, demonstrated depth and subtlety in its outrageousness, fall back on cheap thrills and kneejerk irony in his new Happiness. Starting with the title: it's one thing to skewer naive notions of optimism, human goodness, and the predominance of decency with compassion and a sense of pathos, quite another to piss on them indiscriminately for easy -- and uneasy -- laughs. Solondz succumbs too often to the latter temptation; though this parody of suburban New Jersey complacency has glimmers of tragedy and hilarity, it shows too little grasp of its title condition to warrant our reacting to its loss with more than a snicker.

In lieu of true happiness, we're given Joy (Jane Adams, whose sweetness would have a little more light if given a hint of awareness), who's introduced in a throwaway prologue that sets the pattern for the rest of the film. On a date from hell with hopeless nerd Andy, (Jon Lovitz in a sour cameo), she tries to extricate herself from further involvement as charitably as possible. In parting, he offers her an ashtray with her name on it. "I'll cherish it," she says, believing, with us, that she's managed her unpleasant task with the minimum of bloodshed. "No you won't," says Andy, who takes it back and unloads on her his wrath, impotence, and contempt. "I'm champagne," he concludes. "You're shit."

Joy takes it as her due, and that establishes the movie's set-'em-up/knock-'em-down MO. Joy's Candide-like ingenuousness and ineptitude have earned the pseudo-benevolent sniping of her two more accomplished sisters. Helen (an acerbic Lara Flynn Boyle) is a celebrity writer whose boredom with success doesn't prevent her from rubbing it in the faces of those less blessed. Trish (a colorless Cynthia Stevenson) is married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a straight-arrow psychiatrist, with whom she has three kids in a glowingly normal household. All, of course, are knowingly and unknowingly entangled in the La Ronde of gratuitous unhappiness that is Solondz's vision of the cesspool beneath the façade of normality.

Bill, for example, tells his own psychiatrist his dreams of spicing up a walk in the park with an M-16. He's a perfect balance of chumminess and authority when easing the anxieties of his young son Billy (Rufus Read) about the mystery of ejaculation, and he's no less professional and charming when drugging Billy's best friend during a sleepover and molesting him. Although potentially a stereotype, the character achieves near tragic dimensions through Baker's wrenchingly controlled and tormented performance, his tenuous decency hovering resigned and helpless between his Mister Rogers persona and the relentless predator within. One of the film's true stabs at greatness is a scene in which Billy confronts his father about his malady: here Solondz achieves the balance of horror and black comedy he aspires to.

Less fortunate are the film's other losers. Joy falls for Vlad (Jared Harris), a Russian student in the ESL class she teaches; he steals her stereo and the guitar with which she composes her sad little folk songs. Helen finds stimulation in being humiliated by anonymous obscene phone calls from Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman); he turns out to be the schlubbish neighbor whose greetings she ignores in the lobby of their apartment building. And Allen -- a patient of Dr. Bill in this too small world -- seeks comfort with the lonely, heavy-set woman next door, who proves to have more than ice cream in her refrigerator.

It's Your Friends and Neighbors with less venom and more bile, and the film shares Neil LaBute's bland cartoon style and structure with only occasional flashes of the puckish surrealism that made Solondz's Dollhouse so memorable and refreshing. That and a sense of humanity to contrast with the ubiquitous monstrosity and haplessness would make the film more moving -- and funnier. In the end, when Joy and her fragmented family toast happiness, the irony would sting more if we could believe there was champagne and not shit in their glasses.

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