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Friday, July 14, 2000

'HAPPINESS'

As the world turns ugly


"Happiness" -- as might be expected of a U.S. indie film bearing such a suspiciously upbeat title -- is actually a wicked little black comedy about misery and isolation. Alternately scathing and sympathetic in its portrayal of losers, perverts and geeks, "Happiness" is a kind of fun-house mirror reflection of suburban America, where latent neurotic obsessions erupt like volcanic zits on the sallow face of normality: Binge eating, spree shootings, family dysfunction, pedophilia, self-loathing and other strange urges best banished to a dark room with locked doors.

Yet while the temptation is to read the film's title as a particularly stark bit of irony, it's also possible to view it as a question: As the film's (deliberately naff) title track -- penned by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe -- asks, "Happiness, where are you? I haven't got a clue . . . "

What, asks director Tod Solondz, defines happiness? Marriage, kids and stability? The freedom of single life? Acting on sexual fantasies? Work? Success? Being yourself, or putting up the facade that society demands? The brilliance of "Happiness" -- and this is an entirely brilliant film -- is that it remains an enigma, succeeding as a very sick, very outrageous comedy while still forcing you to consider, "What the hell was Solondz thinking when he made this?"

Solondz constructs an intricately overlapping story involving about a dozen denizens of anywhere, New Jersey, running through a series of home and workplace vignettes that look normal on the surface, but play like a soap opera from hell.

Gentle, all-too-sweet folk singer Joy (Jane Adams) tries to break up amicably with her dorky boyfriend Andy (Jon Lovitz), only to have his sniveling dejection turn into a rabid hiss of hate. Joy just sits there, speechless, her passivity marking her as a target for the rest of the film (much as it did "Wiener Dog" in Solondz's previous film, the equally misanthropic "Welcome to the Dollhouse").

Joy's sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle of "Twin Peaks"), a successful and hip writer of sordid confessional poetry, is also having guy problems -- namely, with a heavy-breathing obscene phone caller who she doesn't realize is her next-door neighbor, the scarily repressed office-nerd Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Boogie Nights"). He, in turn, is disturbed from his pornographic reveries by another neighbor, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), an overweight recluse who tells him that the apartment's doorman Pedro was murdered, and that his penis has disappeared. (To which Allen can only reply, "Uh, wow.")

Helen and Joy's other sister, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), is happily married with kids, which seems to allow her to be smug and cruelly condescending to Joy. What she doesn't know is that her loving psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) has a problem bigger than any of his patients: an unhealthy obsession with adolescent boys. It's not by accident that the film's most messed-up character of all is a psychiatrist.

One of the film's funniest bits has Bill feigning interest and concern as Allen describes some brutally pornographic fantasies regarding his neighbor; we realize that Bill is another world -- he's thinking of what he has to do after work. As it turns out, in the next scene, Bill is off to see a shrink about his own recurring dreams in which he kills everyone he sees.

The greatest controversy around "Happiness" (which was enough to get it dropped by its U.S. distributor) rests on its depiction of Bill, the child molester. Some have complained that he seems too sympathetic, too "normal," but it's evident that's the director's point. As we're used to hearing from the neighbors of madmen when they are interviewed by TV news crews after another post-office massacre or some such occurrence, the most common response is "He seemed like a nice quiet guy." Indeed.

Dylan Baker's performance here is fearless in its normality, although, if you look closely, there's a distractedness in his gaze that's clearly unnerving. His heart-to-heart chats with his son Billy (Rufus Read), who's asking about the birds and the bees, run the razor's edge between the ridiculously funny and the chillingly insane.

Solondz offers us a vision of a society where something has gone terribly wrong. Psychological damage is running over like a blocked-up sewage pipe. You can see it bubbling up in the background, as Bill and Trish's kids run through the house with plastic guns yelling "Die! Die! Die!," or in thirtysomething Joy's bedroom, decorated with stuffed animals and flowery wallpaper. It's there in Kristina, who can stop a teary confession of a horrible crime long enough to order a hot fudge sundae, or Helen, who rolls on her bed gnashing her teeth at the fact that she wasn't abused as a child, and hence has nothing "real" to write about.

If you close your eyes and think of the freak-show confessionals of Jerry Springer, the sexual hangups of Monica Lewinsky and the self-righteous manipulation of her "friend" Linda Tripp, the continuing fascination with John Wayne Bobbit, the hysteria over legions of imagined Internet pedophiles . . . If you look real hard you can see that "Happiness" is not so much a sick joke as a diagnosis.

The big question mark with this film is the director's intent: Is he simply a misanthrope, laughing at losers who flush their own lives down the toilet? Or is he actually sympathetic, indicting audiences who would find humor in other people's misery?

There's certainly evidence for both readings, but one line near the end seems key. When suave, cynical Helen bursts out laughing at the naivete of her sister Joy, she quickly assumes a fake smile and purrs, "That's OK. I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you."

To which Joy replies, pointedly, "But I'm not laughing." Viewer, judge thyself.

"Happiness" opens tomrorrow at Cine Amuse in Shibuya.


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