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Happiness (Todd Solondz) 1998

    To follow up his brilliantly nihilistic middle-school comedy debut Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz made an even more pessimistic tale, this time focusing on sexual frustration. In the ironically titled Happiness, Solondz pumps up the humiliation level on his cast well beyond what he had done with Dollhouse, and somehow manages to avoid some of that film's sadism. Interestingly though, he still has no respite for Dollhouse's Dawn Weiner - this film reveals her whole family was killed by a serial killer. There's more compassion here for the characters than there was for Dawn. Perhaps its because the whole world seems downtrodden here. Dollhouse's high school was a somewhat functional world with Dawn a dysfunction in it. In Happiness, a scene in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman literally reaches into the black void that is Lara Flynn Boyle is particularly telling. In this film's universe, everyone is fucked up, so there is no solace to be found in others. The film's cast tries though, and for that, we empathize with them.

 

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    That they provoke empathy at all is almost amazing though. The characters display an enormous number of perversions (voyeurism, pedophilia, obscene-phone calling, murder) and sometimes we feel that the only reason that they do is so Solondz can shock us. The interesting thing here is that the amount of sympathy from the viewer seems to be directly proportionate to the amount of perversion on display. We can sympathize with the pedophile: he takes time out to explain to his son his impulses (though he alarmingly offers to demonstrate), and the scene where we wait in suspense for his young victim to eat a sleeping pill is directorial manipulation on the level of Psycho. The film's more normal characters are ghastly though (a passive-aggressive, happy only because she can remain blind to those around her, housewife leads that race). It's a funny film despite all this, and is never nearly as disturbing or solemn as such subject matter might suggest. Solondz manages to work the audience over, but at least, for once, it's not to make us feel falsely better about ourselves.

****

September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman