Todd Solondz’s Happiness Deserves Better than Its Edgy Reputation

Movies Features Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz’s Happiness Deserves Better than Its Edgy Reputation

To call Todd Solondz’s controversial third feature Happiness a dark comedy thoroughly undersells both words in that label. It reaches into the deepest and most repressed parts of the sordid American suburban underbelly while also being one of the funniest movies ever made. Upon its release, it became a subject of major controversy almost immediately during its festival run, where it was outright refused by Sundance. It wasn’t until the 1998 Cannes Film Festival when the movie received major appreciation, winning the International Critics Prize and becoming a huge subject of discussion. Nonetheless, it was dropped by its distributor October Films (which earlier distributed movies like Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves) soon after its New York and L.A. premiere, where it grossed a quarter of a million dollars after less than two weeks on just six screens.

When it comes to art, Europe is much less puritanical than the United States, which may explain why Happiness found so much appreciation by the establishment there and derision by a major studio like Universal here. But, to be fair, the movie’s deliberate, envelope-pushing confrontation of Americans—in a way that made them uncomfortable seeing some deeply buried parts of the national subconscious—made it especially difficult to market to such an audience. It depicted the psyche and emotional state of people in this country in a manner that most Hollywood filmmakers don’t dare to do, or maybe cannot fathom. Films like Happiness and Harmony Korine’s Gummo have often been relegated to enfant terrible or (in current nomenclature) edgelord status. To me, though, they truly get at the heart of suburban existence, compared to the more prescriptive and contrived excavations of suburban malaise in films like Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia.

Twenty-five years since Solondz’s masterpiece was begrudgingly released into theaters, the general discussion of Happiness has shifted towards what the film is actually saying. Older reviews—like CNN’s panning of the film, which declared Solondz was “raising the ante on bottom-feeding charlatans like David Lynch by actually daring to empathize with the sexual misfits he has created”—seem outdated. In retrospect, it always felt juvenile to look at this film with a surface-level reading of what happens, rather than how it unfolds. The depictions of rape, murder and pedophilia remain signifiers for movie dorks looking to push the boundaries of what their parents allow them to watch (Solondz joked that he would allow his kids to see the movie after they turn 35), but growing up means understanding the reasons for these boundaries—and for pushing them.

Solondz’s conception of Happiness came from several ideas that he was indecisive about tackling, saying he didn’t want to promote one over the rest, so he combined them together. The story threads intermingle through three sisters—Trish, Joy and Helen—who lead lives that are superficially very different but represent a sense of unfulfillment and tragedy in unique ways. Trish has a stable upper-middle class life with her psychiatrist husband Bill, who is secretly a pedophile. Joy is kind, shy, sensitive, perpetually aimless, perpetually single, and her coworker committed suicide after she has a bad date with him. Helen is an attractive, successful author loved by many for her looks and artistic talent, but she feels empty and has impostor syndrome. 

Threads of isolation and loneliness bind these stories. Anyone familiar with Solondz’s cinema keenly understands the ironic humor that the title Happiness holds within it. Coming off the success of Welcome to the Dollhouse, which had its fair share of controversial subject matter but maintained the appreciably humorous wit of a ‘90s dark comedy, Solondz’s follow-up was drastically more difficult. Its frankness in discussing sexuality, violence and loneliness, compounded with an undercutting of its prickly sequences with a wry humor that critics, like the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan, found unempathetic and cold. 

Even as the 1990s contended with violent, sarcastic excavations of the brutal characteristics of the nation that Americans wanted to pretend weren’t there—Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Scott Kalvert’s The Basketball Diaries and Larry Clark’s Kids immediately come to mind—Happiness seemed to exist in another stratosphere. It didn’t sensationalize or stylize its depiction of its subjects the way those other movies did. Happiness instead created a false sense of normalcy in which the darkest impulses of its characters tear apart the façade. 

The first scene is the terribly awkward date between Joy and Andy, which leads Andy to commit suicide soon after. The next scene shows Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sweats through all his clothes, mouth-breathes and delivers horrifically pained sexual moans when he masturbates in one of the greatest performances ever put to film), a depressed and sexless man graphically relaying a dream where he imagined having sex with his neighbor Helen. 

“I fucked her so hard she came out of her ears,” he groans while his psychiatrist, Bill the pedophile, pays absolutely zero attention, daydreaming about a park. 

Solondz cuts to a pristine, beautiful midday scene at a public park where the dream version of Bill suddenly pulls out a semi-automatic and opens fire. The scene cuts back to the real Bill, still not paying attention to Allen, smiling to himself. 

It’s understandable to think that Solondz lays it on a bit thick with the irreverence here, but there’s a clear method to this madness—especially after it’s revealed that Bill lusts after his son’s soccer teammate. The organic foundation of Happiness grows from its interest in its characters and situations rather than a set of themes. The American suburban experience is not a set of clearly defined universal symptoms like boredom or trauma, like so many depictions would have you believe. Rather, it’s a slow creep, a breakdown of human relationships that comes from contradictory places, like how the three sisters experience peaks and valleys at different moments that drive them to resentment, jealousy and condescension towards one other. Like in Gummo, once you get beyond the surface-level peculiarities and the ironic detachment of the camera, you see the barefaced aimlessness that suburban American isolation had wrought. 

But it’s not all doom. Solondz ends Happiness with riotous positivity. Amid the aimless adults—the three sisters whose lives are all blowing in the wind, and their parents who are separating in their twilight years—a familial reckoning is interrupted by Trish’s son. His sexual repression, caused by his father’s arrest for pedophilia, has finally relieved itself; he tells his whole family that he “came” for the first time. For all the depravity the adults show in this movie, the next generation still has a sense of guileless happiness for the simple pleasures. That, Solondz makes clear, should be kept alive for as long as possible, before the adults—and our greater society—inevitably kill it.

Soham Gadre is an entertainment and culture writer based in Washington D.C. He has written for Polygon, MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, and Film Inquiry among other publications. He has a Twitter account where he talks about movies, basketball, and food.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin