PLEASE NOTE: “As an Amazon Associate, [Need Coffee] earns from qualifying purchases." You know we make money from Amazon links,
and I know you know this, but they make us say it anyway. More info, click here.

Happiness (1998) – DVD Review

Happiness DVD


Written & Directed by: Todd Solondz
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Louise Lasser, Cynthia Stevenson, Jon Lovitz


  • Cast and crew info

Released by: Lions Gate
Region: 1
Rating: NR, but no kiddies, please
Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: Rent it.

This is the story of three sisters. The first up is Joy (Adams) and she doesn’t have much luck with men. In fact she has so little luck she is suffering a luck deficit when it comes to men. I’m surprised she doesn’t suck away the luck from others. Well, maybe she does. Sister Trish (Stevenson) supposedly has got it made in the shade, but she has no idea that her husband (Baker), is really a closet pedophile and is pretty much a certified psychopath. And lastly, sister Helen (Boyle) is a poet who’s managed to become famous, but secretly harbors the notion that she’s a total fake and really just wants to have some wild, out of control sex. These three and the lives that surround them form the basis for Solondz’ wild Altman-on-crystal-meth epic.

[ad#longpost]The crazy thing about the above synopsis is that, if you’re not already familiar with the film, you’ll probably blink a couple of times in disbelief when I tell you this thing is a comedy. Oh sure, probably about as dark a comedy as you can muster. And what’s amazing is that, as bleak and utterly depraved everything is–it is still quite funny. The film manages to walk the razor’s edge between revulsion and hilarity more deftly than anything I’ve ever seen before or since.

This is partly due to an extremely solid ensemble cast. Hoffman and Baker are both the standouts–Hoffman for playing what, even for a Hoffman character, is an unparalleled loser, and Baker for being able to play such a despicable character that seems human…and is all the more terrifying for that fact. Also of merit is Lara Flynn Boyle, who plays the flawed-but-full-of-herself poet effortlessly. And lastly, points must be given to Jon Lovitz, who, with Adams, opens the film–and the scene is so unbelievably pathetic it’s hilarious.

But mostly the fine balancing act is due to the deft direction of Solondz–an act which, sadly, breaks down about halfway into the film. That’s when the entire train derails due to the fact the formerly perfectly tuned funny is overwhelmed by shock value. I have not heard Solondz’ own designs behind the film (where a commentary is desperately needed and sadly missing from this release), but the way I took this sudden shift was to shock the audience into realizing what human waste everyone was laughing at. “Wow, these people really are horrible!” Which is so blatantly obvious that it’s more of a slap against our collective intelligence than it is any kind of statement. If he had simply been able to maintain that balance, this would have been a masterpiece–as it is, it unravels to the point where the climax (in some cases, literal) which should have been profound is instead a final shock-feather in Solondz’ ratty cap.

Jon Lovitz and Jane Adams from Happiness
Jon Lovitz and Jane Adams

Like I said above, I really would have liked a commentary from Solondz–even just an interview as part of an overall featurette–that went into just what he was thinking when he made the thematic shift halfway through. Hell, just finding out whether or not it was even deliberate would be worthwhile. Also of interest would be some interviews of the cast: namely, what exactly attracted these people to such a challenging script? But alas.

Regardless, if you can stomach the incredibly disturbing and challenging core of the film, which contains pedophilia, lots of sexual dysfunction, and…ah…bodily explusions, shall we say, then you’re in for at least half of an interesting ride. It’s worth a rental if you meet these qualifications. If you don’t, you would do well to leave it be.

Lara Flynn Boyle and Philip Seymour Hoffman from Happiness
Lara Flynn Boyle and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Where to Find Stuff