Happiness (1998)

Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Cynthia Stevenson

My Advice: Wait and Rent It.

Welcome to a film that's unusual because there's hardly a character worth liking among the whole bunch.  And believe me there's a bunch.  This is kind of like taking Robert Altman's style and giving that style a big bowl of crack to smoke.  Wow.  Lemme try and summarize.  There's three sisters.  One is ironically named Joy (Adams) and she is destined to a life of bad relationships, bad jobs and bad...well, life.  The second is Trish (Stevenson), and she's the one who's "got it all," including a pedophile/borderline sociopath for a husband (Baker).  And last but not least is Helen (Boyle), the famous poet who thinks she's a phony and longs for some, shall we say, intense sex therapy...but without the therapy.  Not to mention her parents (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) who are separating but no one mentioned the word "divorce," dammit.  And now--are you ready for this?  It's a comedy.

And here's the scary part: it's actually funny for the most part.  The characters are so pathetic and useless that it's either laugh at them or leap onto the screen and beat the crap out of them.  But you can credit that to the ensemble cast, all of whom inject their characters with humanity.  They're real, which is what makes the film all the more disturbing  The film's first half strikes a very interesting and slightly uncomfortable balance between shock and comedy, and while it teeters there it's damn brilliant.  However.  The second half of the film gives up the balance entirely and relies only on shock: as Baker's character attempts to perform extracurricular activities with his son's (Justin Elvin) friend during a sleepover; as Joy goes to bed with a student of hers, appropriately named Vlad (Jared Harris), only to find he's using her as well; as Helen wants to rendezvous with an obscene caller who's been stalking her, her neighbor Allen (Hoffman).  If the film had managed somehow to keep the humor in with the shock quality, it would have been a triumph.  As it stands, however, it's uneven.  We don't need the jokes pulled out from under us to suddenly realize an hour in that these people are desperate shitheads and their lives are horrific.  "I've been laughing at this?  My God, I must be screwed up, too!"  That's obvious and it's almost insulting that Solondz throws that fact in your face as the show grinds to a halt.  And it halts for certain, with an ending that I believe was supposed to be a kind of backhanded shot at hope and resolution, but it deflates miserably.  (And there's no pun intended if you're reading this and have seen the film)  And it's a shame too, because as I said, the performances and the first hour are positively stunning.  See it on the small screen, but wait till the kids have not just gone to bed, but gone to Grandma's.

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