Happiness (1998): Todd Solondz Best Film?

Todd Solondz continues to explore family life in middle-class America in Happiness, a controversial film that premiered out of competition in Cannes, where it won the International Critics Award.

It’s based on the same strategy as Welcome to the Dollhouse’s, summed up by Solondz as “I am moved by what I find funny, and vice versa.” The difference between the two movies is that the newer film had a “much more experienced production team and the lack of doubt that it was going to be finished.” Some of the most significant figures in independent cinema–Christine Vachon and Good Machine’s Ted Hope–were involved. Good Machine self-released the movie when October, under pressure from parent company Universal, decided not to distribute it.

Drawing on his own upbringing, Solondz returns to that fertile turf of American suburbia, sculpting a placid surface beneath which bizarre desires and anxieties are lurking. “We live in a country in which alienation is more accutely felt than anywhere else in the world,” Solondz explained. “The family unity is not as tight as it is in Europe or certainly in the rest of the world.” Holding that “it is the daily fabric of your life that defines what your life is about, not Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Solondz made a personal movie about desire, about people trying to reach out and connect.

The idea of structuring the film around three sisters–which recalls Chekhov as well as Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters–was contrived to thread the different storylines together. Joy (Jane Adams) says she’s getting better every day, but Mr. Right has not appeared yet. Married sister Trish (Cynthia Stevensen) despairs that Joy will never “have it all,” as she does. Third sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a best-selling author who has slipped into an angst that can only be relieved by kinky sex. Their parents are an aging couple falling apart: Mother ponders divorce while father longs for death, and the men in the sisters’ lives are just as troubled.

One could argue, as Solondz does, that “a movie like Happiness can only come out of a society with a repressive culture, and yet there’s nothing in the movie that isn’t in the tabloids or talk shows.” The difference is that in talk shows, there’s a moralistic voice, though it’s always undercut by exploitational treatment through close-ups which bring a titllating, freak-show aspect to it. Though deeply troubled, the characters are not freaks: “I’m very invested emotionally in these characters, and at the same time, I have a kind of ironic detachment that enables me to laugh.”


Running time: 140 Minutes

Though produced by October, the indie company owned by Universal could not release the film unrated. It was distributed by Good Machine in limited markets and found an appreciative audience there, grossing about $2.7 at the box-oofice.