HAPPINESS, Directed by Todd Solondz (1998)
This savage depiction of American adulthood has a central storyline concerning a paedophile who preys upon his son’s school friends. Combining one of cinema’s last taboos (at the time) with cruel comedy makes Happiness highly disturbing and sometimes questionable viewing. However Solondz has not included child abuse as merely a desperate attempt to stir up controversy, but to brutally drive home the film’s key theme; the destruction of innocence involved in the child becoming an adult, and the monsters that are created by seemingly careless circumstance.
The failed marriage of their parents provides a backdrop of hopelessness for the three sisters at the film’s focus. Jane Adams plays the feeble Joy, the only character who appears to have retained any degree of innocence, which means she is the least able to function in the adult world. Being the most child-like character, we feel some sympathy for her as she naively dreams of a career as a singer-songwriter while yet another relationship ends in disaster. The rest of the cast are portrayed in such a gleefully nasty manner that we lose compassion fast. The beautiful and successful writer Helen (Twin Peak’s Lara Flynn Boyle) is plagued both by fears that she lacks authenticity and by obscene phone calls from her obese neighbour, but despite this our reaction to her is one of distaste for her self-indulgence.
Cynthia Stevenson plays the third sister, Trish, who displays ignorance rather than innocence; a housewife so proud of her “perfect” family life, she can’t see the truth about her husband. We despise her for her failure to look below the surface of her own existence as much as we do him for failing to control his dark, unspeakable urges. Finally we despise them all for their selfishness; their self obsession blinding them to the effect of their actions on others, and particularly on their children.
‘Happiness’ is not for the faint hearted, but it is extremely funny, and despite it’s cruelty, genuinely moving. by daring to tackle such dangerous themes with a venomous wit, Solondz has crafted an unforgettable masterpiece.