The Depress-A-Thon: Happiness by Jamie

Happiness, happiness. I’ve been told that it’s the greatest gift that one can possess. But can anyone ever truly be happy? Is happiness merely a mask that people wear in order to protect themselves from the harsh realities of life? And what of those who can only find happiness by acting on strange impulses and fantasies? Do we as human beings even deserve happiness? (Spoilers Ahead!)

These are just a few of the questions you may ponder as you watch Todd Solondz’s 1998 film ‘Happiness’ a story starring an ensemble cast with interweaving stories which all seem to centre around the Jordan family in particular the Jordan Sisters, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Joy (Jane Adams).

Joy is thirty-year old aspiring musician who still lives in her parents old home, works a crappy job and has basically no prospects for the future. Her sisters feign confidence in her to her face but in actuality it’s clear that neither of them think that she will ever be anything more than a lonely failure. The film opens with Joy on a date with Andy (Jon Lovitz), a co-worker and it’s clear that she’s just dumped him. He goes on to accuse her of being shallow before making a scene in the restaurant. He later kills himself. This causes Joy to leave her telephone sales job in an effort to do something more worth her while, becoming a teacher at an immigrant-education centre.

The problem is that she’s hired during a strike and even her students accuse her of being a scab. All except for one, a Russian named Vlad (Jarred Harris) who apparently takes quite a liking to her. He gives her a lift back to New Jersey where they have sex. Things finally seem to be going well for Joy until she finds out that Vlad was merely using her for money and to steal things from her.

Helen is a celebrated author who seemingly has the perfect life. She’s rich, famous and can have practically any man she wants. This life, however, leaves her wanting more. She’s worried that people only like her because of her success and she feels, ultimately, that her success is undeserved. She worries that because she writes about rape whilst never having been raped that she is a sham. She desires something more out of life, something to make her excited again.

Enter Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Helen’s neighbour who is obsessed with her and making obscene phone calls. When he decides to call her from work and talk all dirty at her, she traces his number and rings him back, fascinated with the disgusting nature of his call. They finally meet but it soon becomes clear that Helen has absolutely no interest in Allen whatsoever. Depressed, Allen seeks solace in the arms of a more homely neighbour who had been in love with him, a murdering rape victim who is disgusted by the very idea of sex.

Trish appears to be living what I believe some call the American dream. She is a mother of three and wife to a psychiatrist Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker). She doesn’t seem to want for anything except that recently her sex life with her husband seems to have been suffering and she needs him to constantly reassure her that he loves her. Of course, the reason that Bill’s sexual appetite for his wife has diminished somewhat may be something to do with the fact that he is lusting after something else, young boys. He manages to control his urges by masturbating to pictures in magazines but an opportunity soon presents itself that Bill cannot resist.

A classmate of Bill’s son named Jonny comes for a sleepover one night, a classmate that Bill has developed something of an obsession with. During the night he drugs the boy and the rest of his family and rapes Jonny whilst he is unconscious. It seems as though this has unleashed something within Bill and when he learns that another classmate of his sons is home alone, he rapes him as well.

Jonny isn’t feeling to well after his night over at the Maplewood household and is eventually taken to hospital where it is revealed that he has been raped. This leads the police to call round and interview Bill. The police begin to question him about Jonny to which Bill replies with a question about the other boy, pretty much sealing his fate. This leads to a final conversation between Bill and his son where he explains that he did the things he is being accused of, enjoyed them, would do them again but he wouldn’t rape his own son. No, he’d just jerk off instead.

The final story within the film is that of the sisters two parents who, after forty years of marriage are finally separating though not getting divorced. The reason being that Lenny (Ben Gazzara) claims that he no longer loves his wife, just wants to be alone and has seemingly lost all capacity for normal human emotion.

So yeah, that’s pretty much a small synopsis of the film ‘Happiness’… Well, maybe it’s not small but it’s kind of hard to write a small synopsis for a film that has five different stories interweaving with each other, especially when all of those stories all seem to have a fairly equal amount of depth. Some are given more weight than others. For example, though it is clear that Joy is probably supposed to be the main character to some degree, it is Bill who comes of feeling more like he’s the focus of the film. This might be because his character seems to have the most dimensions to him.

Bill is the one who commits the most horrendous and reprehensible acts (acts which are thankfully only ever implied off-screen) whilst also being… I don’t want to say the most sympathetic character but Todd Solondz does somehow make you feel a little sorry for him. He’s different from most film portrayals of paedophiles in that he’s not a one-dimensional monster, he actually has good attributes as well. He’s a good husband and a good father which perhaps makes it all the more shocking when he does the things that he does. He’s not a monster, outwardly he’s just like everyone else and that makes him all the more horrible to contemplate.

The ironic thing about the title here is, of course, that no one in the film is happy. Helen is emotionally unfulfilled despite her pretty sweet life, Joy cannot seem to ever, ever get a break, Allen comes close to getting what he wants only to have any chance of it happening taken from him, Bill struggles and fails to control his urges and one character, Lenny has seemingly lost the ability to feel anything at all, let alone happiness. The implication of it all is that there is no such things as true happiness. It’s either an illusion that people convince themselves is real, either to cope with the horrid reality of living or protect themselves from their true nature, or if it does exist at all then it’s temporary and sooner or later something will come along to destroy it.

Despite this bleak outlook, ‘Happiness’ does actually manage to be rather funny and quite enjoyable. It’s a well made film with fantastic performances throughout. Dylan Baker and Phillip Seymour Hoffman stand out in particular, both managing to convey the conflicts within their characters perfectly. The music also remains ironically upbeat throughout the film, adding another layer to twisted nature of the film by doing things such as playing a happy go lucky kinda tune whilst a man suffers a heart attack on a golf course.

Now, I don’t know whether or not to recommend ‘Happiness’. It most certainly isn’t for everyone and there’s not much joy to be had in watching it though it is still a strangely enjoyable film to watch, if that makes any sense whatsoever. I’m not sure that it does. In fact, the only technical problem I can find with the film is that sometimes it seems as though a few things are pushed just a little too far for humours sake and they fall a little flat and outside the realms of believability that the rest of the film seems to inhabit. Still, I’ll give this film four pints out of five. Haven’t decided what the review for tomorrow will be yet but I’ll try and pick something that doesn’t involve paedophilia whatsoever, though the subject does admittedly make for a rather depressing, enraging and upsetting movie watching experience. Laterz.

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