Happiness (1998)

happiness poster 1998 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Dark and edgy, Dylan Baker

Not for everyone and not very accessible

Movie Info

Movie Name: Happiness

Studio: Killer Films

Genre(s): Comedy/Drama

Release Date(s):  May 15, 1998 (Cannes)/October 16, 1998 (US)

MPAA Rating:  Unrated

happiness joy jane adams vlad jared harris

I love NY…and Joy (or at least Joy’s stuff)

Joy Jordan (Jane Adams), Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish Maplewood (Justin Elvin) are sisters all in self-destructive spirals…whether they know it or not.  Joy wants fulfilment in her life and when a man she dated named Andy (Jon Lovitz) commits suicide, she seeks a job as a teacher for immigrants leading her to meet an aggressive Russian named Vlad (Jared Harris).  Helen is a shallow poet who doesn’t feel she has the experience she needs to be good, but soon finds herself in a strange “blind” relationship with an obscene phone-caller who is really her reclusive neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Trish thinks she has the perfect life with her psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) and her three children…but Bill has a secret.  Meanwhile in Florida, the girls’ parents Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara) are having their own personal crisis when Ben decides he wants to separate.

Written and directed by Todd Solondz, Happiness is a black-comedy drama.  The film premiered at Cannes in 1998 and received acclaim with a release later in the year in the United States.  The film was also controversial due to the subject matter leading to problems involving its release.

I loved Welcome to the Dollhouse and was excited to see Solondz’s follow-up.  Welcome to the Dollhouse was grim and funny, but Solondz managed to make Happiness even darker.

happiness philip seymour hoffman obscene phone calls

Obscene phone call? I was just trying to order a pizza.

If you watch Happiness, I could totally see and understand how it would be off-putting.  Especially in more modern takes on things like the crisis in the Catholic Church even the #MeToo movement, the subject and exploration of deviant, abusive sex and sexual power is rough.  What is even rougher is that Solondz tries to take a lighter look at it.  The awkward moments for all the main characters involving sex are tough to watch (especially the sit down between pedophile Dylan and his son Billy (Rufus Read) which is as dark as dark can be…but still tries to end it with a sick, twisted laugh).  All the characters are broken and broken to a point that it would be even difficult to come back from.

The cast is good.  The three sisters Joy, Helen, and Trish are deftly played by Adams, Boyle, and Stevenson to show both their shallowness and their sadness.  Even the Joy character is unlikable in many ways despite being the character that might be the audience’s only touchstone in the movie.  They have great support from actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jon Lovitz, and Camryn Manheim (whose great Kristina is memorable as well).  The movie also has small roles by Jared Harris and Molly Shannon.  Dylan Baker also receives huge commendations by taking on such a dangerous role that in the pre-art house boom could have doomed an actor.

happiness pedophile dylan baker rufus read

That awkward growing up phase when you have to talk to your dad about raping your friends

Solondz also revels in the settings of New Jersey and Florida.  The world he creates in both areas is rich and stylish.  The characters are morally gross in many ways, but the sets don’t always reflect it (though sometimes they do in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman and his “wall postings”).

Happiness is a divisive film.  Like many of Solondz films, it is uncomfortable and that uncomfortable laughter is what makes it unique.  The film also raises questions about content and how films differ from other forms of media like books (books have explored even darker ideas at times).  Happiness is something that the characters all proclaim they are, but most can’t be further from the truth from the beginning of the this film to the end.  The characters in Happiness (though recast) returned in Life During Wartime in 2010 (which also crossed over with Solondz Welcome to the Dollhouse universe).

Related Links:

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Storytelling (2001)

Life During Wartime (2010)

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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