Happiness

on October 16, 1998 by Lael Loewenstein
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As he did in his 1996 Sundance fest grand prize winner "Welcome to the Dollhouse," writer-director Todd Solondz has created a superb black comedy that exposes the lewd behavior and nefarious impulses bubbling beneath placid surfaces in suburban America. This time his work is considerably darker--so much so that some will undoubtedly be repulsed by its revelations and put off by its tone. But the controversy, plus critical raves, could generate buzz and make "Happiness" a surprise hit.
   The story interweaves incidents in the lives of three sisters: Joy (Jane Adams), who is romantically unfulfilled and professionally adrift; Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a glamorous, best-selling author who considers herself a fraud; and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), the suburban housewife who thinks she has it all. Gradually, crosscutting between different vignettes, Solondz reveals key details of his characters' twisted lives and psyches. Trish's husband (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist, is also a pedophile with an appetite for boys. Helen's neighbor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a sex pervert who fantasizes about raping her. Joy's two romantic relationships end badly--one in a suicide, the other with a robbery.
   What is so remarkable here is that Solondz sustains the delicate balance of comedy and repulsion throughout. It's a fine line to walk and one which he could have easily overstepped had he gone too far in either direction. But everything works on at least two levels: Seemingly funny incidents and dialogue are in fact creepily tragic, while disgusting behavior carries an almost irresistible undercurrent of humor. Though it's a bit long at well over two hours, the film is never dull. Exquisitely acted and shot in bold, bright hues that serve as an ironic counterpoint to the murky goings-on, "Happiness" leaves viewers feeling disturbed, amazed, and fascinated. Starring Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cynthia Stevenson. Written and directed by Todd Solondz. Produced by Ted Hope and Christine Vachon. A Good Machine release. Black comedy. Rated R. Running time: 134 min.
Tags: Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cynthia Stevenson, Todd Solondz, Ted Hope, Christine Vachon, A Good Machine release, Black comedy, incidents, creepily, trafic, vignetters, psyches, twisted, lewd behavior
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