When Happiness arrived – late 1990s – I was already a Todd Solondz fan. Welcome To The Dollhouse had convinced me I needed to watch whatever else he put out into the world – and I did. I have. I’ve seen them all now – pretty much in order, as they’ve arrived. And though I love Dollhouse and have watched it plenty, I’m into Storytelling and Palindromes too and Life During Wartime (a sort of pseudo-sequel to Happiness that tries a bit too hard to be clever) has its moments. But Happiness is the one. It’s the one I’ve seen the most. The one that had the biggest impact.
You can still use it as a great barometer. Tell a person you’ve just met that your favourite all-time romantic comedy is Happiness…you’ll know whether you’ve made an enemy or found a great new friend.
Tell anyone but your date that it’s the best date-movie. It’s good for a laugh.
Happiness is disturbing – well, that’s what most people will tell you anyway. But it’s also profound, soulful, rich, smart, full of hideous versions of ugly truths – it’s darkly funny. It’s one man’s masterpiece. He’ll never better that film. And there’s no shame at all in that.
I watched Happiness on VHS – one Saturday night. A new release. Still with the video tapes, DVDs were just coming in…a new format, I was slow to get a DVD player.
I watched Happiness on a Saturday night and I did what I’ve only ever done two other times: I rewound it and straight away started watching it over as soon as it was finished. I watched it three times during my first overnight rental.
I bought a copy of it on VHS tape. Replaced it with the DVD. I don’t have much of a DVD collection anymore – but I still have Happiness. I’ll always have Happiness.
It features a set of wonderful performances.
Several of the actors were never better than here – and we’re talking big names too. Wonderful efforts from Ben Gazzara, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Jon Lovitz (in a cameo to open the film), Cynthia Stevenson, Molly Shannon, Camryn Manheim and Jared Harris.
Jane Adams was a (sad) joy as Joy. A mesmerising mediation on a type of waking-sleep sadness. Lara Flynn Boyle owns almost every scene she was in – there’s a moment where her other sisters are telling her compliments, the kind she’s heard already, and she picks a hair of her tongue, rolls an eye. That gets me every time.
But the acting award in this movie goes to Dylan Baker – he plays a pedophile, he drugs and rapes one of his son’s school friends. In possibly the strangest and most poignant moment of the film his son asks him if his father would ever fuck him. He replies almost immediately that he would simply jerk-off. There’s a quiver in the son’s voice (Justin Elvin as young Timmy is also amazing here – and throughout the film). And I have had a conversation more than once around whether the kid is upset at the honesty of the answer because of what his father says he would do, or because – in his non-understanding of the perversity and illness that his old man suffers – he’s disappointed that he’s not deemed fuckable like his class-mate.
Happiness is several brilliant set-piece scenes glued together. On repeat plays it rolls out like the world’s most uncomfortable Greatest Hits. Big hits. Huge moments fueled by and fueling further micro-aggressions. It’s a deep lament for the creeps that lurk in the cracks of mundane, suburban life.
The soundtrack brilliantly swings between classy, high-brow classical (Mozart, Vivaldi, Samuel Barber) and utter fucking schmaltz (You Light Up My Life, Air Supply’s All Out of Love, Barry Manilow’s Mandy).
But does Solondz pity these fools – no. I don’t think so. He neither celebrates nor relegates them – these are observations, skillfully there’s some genuine humour in a film filled with dark, disturbing, taboo themes and moments. Creepy phone calls, awkward flirting, uncomfortable silences, narcissism, family disfunction – fucking kiddie-fiddling!
Twice on a Saturday night. And then once again the following morning as soon as I woke. I couldn’t stop myself. And then again a week later, and a month after that. I requested a copy for my birthday. Then watched it weekly for a while.
I know every frame. And I haven’t watched it, now, in years. But I can see the whole movie playing out if I close my eyes. It’s one of the most important films in my lifetime. An absolute classic. A beautiful touch. Unsettling in the very best way.