Published October 1, 1998
Happiness, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Doll’s House), is a sort of twin of Neil Labute’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Both these young, independent filmmakers are reacting against Hollywood fakery and sentimentality by presenting us with horrifyingly funny looks at the sexual manners and mores of late-century America. What Jason Patric’s jaw-dropping confession of the rape of “Timmy” was to Your Friends and Neighbors, the wrenching scene between the pedophiliac doctor, played by Dylan Baker, and his 11-year old son, Billy (Rufus Reed) is to Happiness. Billy, having learned of his father’s rape of two of his school friends, catechizes him: Did he do it? Yes. What did he do, exactly? He f***** them. What was it like? It was great. Would he do it again? Yes. “Would you ever f*** me?” asks Billy, finally arriving at the last horror of all. His father hesitates. “No,” he says. And then, after a long pause he adds: “I’d jerk off instead.”
These two moments of absolute seriousness in the two films, both of which are otherwise meant to be funny, seem to me to be attempting the same thing, to remind us of what sex farce always tends to make us forget—namely, the ridiculousness into which our sexual desires regularly lead us is also a disguise for the ghastly psychic injuries they so often inflict at the same time. In both films, a lot of the humor comes from people’s self-dramatization of their injuries and sense of grievance against sexual partners or the world in general. But we must try not to forget that there are also real injuries, and perhaps even that the pretend and imaginary and hyped up injuries are at bottom damaging to us in irreparable ways.
The movie is loosely structured around the lives of three sisters in New York and New Jersey and their parents, who now live in Florida. It begins with the most sympathetic sister, Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) breaking up with a boyfriend, Andy (Jon Lovitz) who has not worked out. This happens over dinner and Andy takes it badly, to put it mildly. For Joy, Andy’s increasingly angry and defensive behavior is a nightmare of embarrassment; for us it is also funny. When she turns to her sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) for comfort, she is further insulted. Trish, married to Dr Bill Maplewood (Mr Baker), is intolerably smug about “having it all” and outrageously patronizes her sister. She tells her that “We all—Mom, Dad, Helen, me—thought you’d amount to nothing, that you were a loser,” but now they think she might be all right after all.
Naturally, more sexual humiliation is in store for Joy, whose name suggests the ingenuous enthusiasm (but complete lack of musical talent) with which she continues to write and sing upbeat folk songs about love. A Russian cab-driver called Vlad (Jared Harris) at first seems sweet and considerate to her, but as soon as she has slept with him he turns into a monster to make the passive-aggressive Andy look like Prince Charming. But fate is slipping the lead in the boxing glove for Trish too, as her perfect life comes apart with her husband’s arrest, and the third sister, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is being stalked by a pathetic character called Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is himself the object of the attention of an obese neighbor, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), with her own ghastly secret to reveal.
Like Mr LaBute’s film, it is all enough to make you want to take vows of chastity, but, unlike Mr LaBute, Mr Solondz includes a spokesman for himself in the film, the girls’ father Lenny Jordan (Ben Gazzara), who has announced that he wants a separation from their mother (Louise Lasser). Both of them are miserable in the marriage and expect to be miserable out of it. Their Florida retirement community is an even more hideous wasteland than what they left behind in New Jersey, and Lenny is hilariously looking forward to his own death. After his doctor tells him, much to his chagrin, that he might live another 35 years, he looks with longing on a fellow golfer who makes a quick exit by heart attack on the golf course one day. The doctor says there’s not a thing wrong with him if he stays off the salt, and we see him, in the film’s final scene, furiously salting his food as his grandson, Billy, announces in a memorably comic fashion the onset of his sexual maturity.
Much of this very depressing film rings true, but not that final detail. Not quite. The wanton destruction of innocence is indeed a melancholy fact of life in our time, but it’s not the whole story, and both Solondz and LaBute would have done better to have offered us at least a few images of love and wholesome sex just to remind us that these things have not been abolished. Yet.