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Blast from the Past Movie Review – “Happiness” (1998) [GRAPHIC CONTENT]

September 26, 2011

Ok…I’m not quite sure how to take this movie. There are lots of mixed feelings for me after watching this Todd Solondz black-comedy, and believe me, it doesn’t get any blacker than this movie.

I’ll give credit where credit is due, the cast is quite good in this movie, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s memorable/iconic role as the chronic masturbating Allen is definitely a character no one will soon forget after viewing this movie. Dylan Baker as well gives a performance no one will forget; it’s probably the bravest performance I’ve ever seen. I don’t know many actors who are willing to play a role like that.

“Happiness” tells the story about three New Jersey sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), & Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). In the film their lives intertwine with people they come into contact with, family members, friends, exes, and lovers. Joy recently broke up with Andy (Jon Lovitz) because of looks. Andy’s a fat-not-so-attractive kind of guy. Andy fights back and unexpectedly places a “curse” on her. The very next day, Andy commits suicide. Trish is a happily married woman with a psychiatrist husband (Baker) and three kids. Unfortunately the husband develops an unnatural fascination for his 11-year-old son’s male classmates, fantasizes about mass murder in a local park, and masturbates to teen magazines. One of his patients has a creepy fascination for the third sister, Helen. Meanwhile, in South Florida, the apparently stable 40 year marriage of the Joy, Helen, & Trish’s parents suddenly unravels when their father decides he has had enough and wants to live a hermit’s life, not a divorce, he never said divorce.

The movie itself is quite warped in its humor and themes. Crude, unorthodox, and vial behavior seems to be the running theme of this movie. The strangest and most uncomfortable scenes are with Baker & Hoffman. Hoffman’s Allen gets off on calling woman from the Yellow Pages and masturbates to the sound of their voice. Baker’s character has these small “father/son talks”, when the son asks about what cum is and why can’t he cum. The movie earned an NC-17 rating and it deserved exactly what it got. A filmmaker can fight the MPAA for graphic sexual dialogue, but when it comes to seeing two characters, during two different times in the movie, ejaculate, and a dog licks up the substance, you’ve most certainly passed the R-rated territory.

With that said, I understand what Solondz was going for, the purpose of using a title such as “Happiness” is a translation of flipping the definition on it’s side and screwing it six ways to Sunday. But, more importantly, what I gathered, Solondz was satirizing the image of a perfect nuclear family, relationships, marital downfalls, and self-gratification. For its bold tracking of controversial contemporary themes, the movie itself is richly layered in subtext. It has clever visual styling’s, thanks to cinematographer Maryse Alberti.  The odd music selections were a great addition to the film, the purpose to use cheerful tunes make the uncomfortable scenes all the more funny & laughable.

Last year, Todd Solondz returned to these characters, in a follow-up/sequel, by setting everyone from the previous film in a post-9/11 world. Recasting the entire ensamble was a bold move, but many have said it was a great move. It was to give other actors the chance to play these troubled characters, like how different actors portray familiar & iconic characters in a play. “Life During Wartime” was the name of the film. I’ve yet to see it, but it’s on my list.

GRADE: B+

Special thanks to Domenic Migliore for this weeks request.

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