Sunday, November 16, 2008

Film Review - "Happiness" (1998)

Todd Solondz

Based on tons of recommendations, I sought this one out for a while. Once I got it, I was so afraid that I would be disappointed, because hype always gives me unrealistic expectations. I finally got a copy of this, and lo and behold, it’s every bit as awesome as I thought it was going to be.
The film is an ensemble piece. The central characters are three upper-middle-class suburban sisters, but we focus on pretty much everyone related to them in some way. The first sister is an acclaimed novelist. She’s a cold, spoiled bitch, and spends most of the movie lamenting about how much she hates being admired, and eventually throws a damn hissy-fit because she wasn’t raped as a child and therefore can’t write about it effectively. So, she goes from there intentionally putting herself into potentially dangerous situations, namely with her middle-aged drunken pervert neighbor who also happens to be an obscene phone caller. The neighbor also has a story arc, mainly about his quest for sex while endlessly rejecting/ignoring his other neighbor, a lonely, overweight girl who obviously has a massive crush on him (pun not intended). The next sister is an over-emotional, aging single woman, and while she claims to be unloved, miserable and desperate, she’s actually dumping men just because they don’t fit her high standards. Eventually, she begins a relationship with a Russian student at the community college she teaches at, and even after he turns out to be a pimp and an abusive kleptomaniac, she stays with him happily simply so she can say she's in a relationship and that she feels 'needed' (and since I've been there, her situation is all the more bitterly humorous to me). The other sister is just a fucking stuck-up busybody bitch, plain and simple, who is always silently gloating to her sisters that she’s happily married with a wonderful husband, wonderful kids and a wonderful double-income that makes them practically rich. Unfortunately, she’s blissfully unaware that her perfect husband, a therapist, is actually a pedophile. This sister’s husband actually has a bigger role than she does, and he deserves it. Also, there’s a subplot where the oldest son (11 years old) is depressed because he isn’t able to reach orgasm when he masturbates, and has these creepy-yet-hilarious, completely deadpan conversations with his dad about these sexual customs. Oh yeah, we also get a look into these ladies’ parents, who are separated; the dad loves it because he was cheating all the time anyway, but the mom is upset because people keep forgetting that ‘separated’ and ‘divorced’ are not interchangeable terms, and whenever someone brings up divorce, she gets extremely emotional.
This is one of my very favorite examples of what a dark comedy should be; it’s funny in its own way, and it’s just so full of vitriol – I refer to it as ‘the anti-romantic comedy’ because of its extreme cynicism and pessimism. Basically, every single character in the movie is a contemptible piece of shit that deserves a slow death. Even the ones you almost feel sorry for find ways of making themselves utterly unsympathetic, usually through their own selfishness. And the one character who is successful in eliciting pity, who you want to see succeed, gets royally screwed in the end, moreso than any other character. The whole thing is a great study on the human condition, really – everyone is a selfish little thorn in everybody else’s side, and they all feel that the world owes them something, they’re all so high-and-mighty and constantly looking down upon others… Sometimes it can kinda make you step back to take a look at yourself.
The single most interesting character in this movie is without a doubt Bob Maplewood, the pedophile therapist. I applaud Todd Solondz for writing a character so well; basically, he’s not portrayed as the inhuman shadow-creature that other movies and TV shows have their kiddy-fiddlers as. Instead, he is, much like in real life, a flawed human being with emotions and guilt and everything else. So, he’s actually sympathetic, but at the same time, still a horrible monster that deserves harsh and severe comeuppance. To say that it fucks with your head is a massive understatement. Any movie that can make you think that much is truly great in my eyes.
The humor in this movie is very distinctive; it’s extremely, extremely dry and bitter, and pretty darn dark, too, so it’s definitely not to all tastes. So, if you want a top-of-the-line dark comedy that will also make you think (and very likely make you depressed), this is an excellent choice.
RATING: 9/10

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