Week 31 – New Jersey
Happiness (1998), directed by Todd Solondz, written by Todd Solondz, with Jon Lovitz, Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara and Camryn Manheim
There are movies that divide.
And then there’s Happiness.
If you want to get an idea of how polarized the reactions to Happiness are, here’s a sample of the 475 user reviews of the film submitted to IMDb.com:
“Run! That’s right! Put as much distance as you can between yourself and this film! I truly regret having watched this movie,” says tristand from Toronto, Canada.
“Sick, sick, sick…,” says metal_angyl.
“One of the darkest, funniest, most brilliant films I’ve seen,” says nbk9 from Norman, OK.
“I’m not sure whether to give this one star or ten. I don’t know if it’s good are bad,” says nifnn from Ireland.
There are people who love Happiness — who use words to describe it like “daring” and “honest” — and there are people who hate Happiness — who think it’s the most vile thing ever committed to film and that it’s director, Todd Solondz, should be locked away in a mental institution.
Finally, there are those like “nifnn from Ireland” who don’t know what to think about it.
At one time I probably felt a lot like our Irish friend. The first couple of time I watched Happiness, I found myself mesmerized and unable to turn away from it. I enjoyed it, but at the same time it left me with a bad taste in my mouth (Those of you who have already seen Happiness and are familiar with it’s final scene … yeah, I know. Bad choice of words … but completely unintentional.)
After repeated viewings over the years, I can now say that Happiness is one of my favorite movies. So, I’m going the break the rule I set for myself at the start of this 50 Movies project – that I would only review movies I’ve never seen before – because, as a Jersey boy, no films better capture suburban Jersey angst and malaise better than those of Todd Solondz. (Don’t even mention Kevin Smith. Puh-lease. That guy’s all Hollywood.)
Of the handful of films directed by Todd Solondz, Happiness is his masterpiece. Clocking in at over two hours, it’s epic – the Titanic of black comedies. However, it’s more than length that makes Happiness epic. Black comedy, by its very definition, walks the fine line between humorous absurdity and utter repulsion. Happiness crosses that line, takes a few steps back and then crosses it again. As its spectator, you will laugh, you will cringe and – when it’s all over – you may find yourself wishing you could erase any memory of it from your head. Happiness is one of those things you can’t un-see.
It’s not a movie for everyone. Happiness introduces us to a cast of characters in various states of loneliness, weaving together several loosely-connected narratives all of which share the common themes of insecurity, self-loathing and sexual dysfunction.
And it’s a comedy.
Rather than being based around a conventional plot, Happiness‘ “story” is a series of chopped up vignettes involving a cast of characters who range from slightly disturbed to grossly deranged. At the center of the film are sisters Helen, Joy and Trish. Helen (Laura Flynn Boyle), the oldest, is a successful author who indulges in meaningless sex with near strangers and constantly obsesses over her image. Joy (Jane Adams), the youngest, is a social worker and ESL teacher – a kind, caring person. Joy, naturally, is a human doormat when it comes to love and relationships. Trish, the middle sister, is the most well-adjusted of the family, seemingly living the American Dream with her husband and three children. Trish worries about her sisters – especially Joy.
Other characters include the sisters’ parents, who are separating after 40 years of marriage, and Joy’s ex-boyfriend Andy (Jon Lovitz), who is dumped by Joy at the start of the film. Andy buys Joy an ashtray and has it engraved with her name – you know – as a gift. He plans to give it to her at dinner, but when she dumps him, he shows it to her before snatching it back, declaring himself to be “champagne” and Joy “shit.”
There’s also Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a shut-in who spends his days masturbating and making obscene phone calls to women picked randomly out of the Yellow Pages. He obsesses over Helen, who is his neighbor, but is petrified to talk to her.
“People look at me and get bored,” Allen tells his shrink, who happens to be Trish’s husband Bill.
When people talk about how Happiness is a controversial movie, they’re really talking about the character of Bill. Sure, Allen’s kind of a sick puppy, but it’s Bill you’ll remember long after Happiness is over. Played by Dylan Baker, who you might know as Dr. Connors from Sam Raimi’s Spiderman and its sequels, Bill is a pedophile. He jerks off to Tiger Beat and fantasizes about going on shooting sprees. He obsesses over one of his son’s schoolmates, a 10 or 11-year-old boy named Johnny Grasso. Then he …. drugs and sodomizes Johnny.
And this is a comedy.
Bill lives by a peculiar moral code. Although he has no problem buggering his son’s friend, he refuses to molest his own son. He actually has a very open and honest relationship with his son Billy – probably too honest. When Billy asks his dad what “come” is, Bill not only tells him that it’s a slang term for semen, but also let’s Billy know that “come” can be used as a verb as well. Billy says he doesn’t know how to “play with himself.” Bill offers to show him how, but Billy declines.
“I’m not normal,” Billy says.
“Don’t worry, you’re normal,” Bill says, hugging his son. “You’ll come one day. You’ll see.”
That’s just one of many cringe-worthy heart-to-hearts that Bill and his son have in this film. I asked my wife Anna if she thought Bill was a good dad. She looked me like I was crazy. I don’t really think Bill is a good dad. I also don’t think he’s a monster, and it’s to Solondz’s credit that I don’t feel that way. Happiness takes the most reprehensible type of person, a child rapist, and portrays him as more than just a boogeyman.
I had a really difficult time trying to find out exactly where Happiness was filmed. It’s set in New Jersey and apparently filmed there — if you trust IMDb, which lists the filming location as “New Jersey, USA.” I wanted a little more detail than just “New Jersey”. I was aware that Solondz grew up in Livingston, NJ, in Essex County about 20 minutes outside of New York City, so I Googled “Livingston, NJ”, “Happiness” and “Solondz”, and found this. Still not satisfied – and probably with too much time on my hands – I Googled “Joe and Mary’s,” a bar featured in the film, and was given the address of a bar in West Bergen, NJ, about ½ an hour east of Livingston. Using street view, I found a bar called Mojito’s, formerly called Joe Marys, which bears a striking resemblance to the Joe and Mary’s in Happiness. The more I poked around, the more areas of North Bergen I noticed resembled locations from the film.
I can’t say for certain whether Happiness was shot in Livingston or West Bergen, but it doesn’t surprise me that information is hard to come by. It also wouldn’t surprise me if that information has purposely been kept on the down low. While most city officials would probably pay for the publicity that comes along with their town being featured in a critically-acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated film, Happiness is the farthest thing from a travel brochure. The world of Happiness is one in which a married father of three can be a dangerous sexual predator, and in which a downtown highrise can be home to any number of perverts and nymphomaniacs – in other words – the world of Happiness is the real world. The world of Happiness is the world we don’t like to talk about. If Livingston or West Bergen are anything like the places we see in Happiness, I would recommend you stay far, far away from these towns.
The truth is that Livingston and West Bergen, and any number of towns and cities across the United States, are probably exactly like the places we see in Happiness and the people of Happiness are your friends and family, your neighbors, the guy who makes your coffee at Starbucks – especially the guy who makes your coffee at Starbucks.
That’s what makes it such a hard film to watch. What makes it easier to watch is it’s a comedy. There are numerous laugh out loud moments in Happiness. Andy’s tirade against joy at the beginning of the film is hilarious. Allen is something right out of a John Waters movie. Even some of the stuff with Bill is funny — like when Bill first sees Johnny playing little league, the camera pans in slowly on his face and on Johnny. The look on Bill’s face is as if he just saw an angel descend from heaven. It’s sick but funny. Does that make me a bad person? Maybe. Even in its darkest moments, Solondz manages to make me laugh – I’m thinking of the scene in which Bill is trying to drug Johnny … so that he can rape him. (Forget about the rape part for a second. It makes it less funny. Plus, it happens off-screen.) Bill offers Johnny ice cream, but Johnny asks for a tuna fish sandwich – which is kind of ridiculous. Then, after Bill carefully prepares the sandwich, complete with date rape drug or whatever narcotic he puts in it, he brings it to Johnny and Johnny no longer wants it. Johnny says he’ll eat it in the morning. Bill gets this really hurt look on his face.
“But … it might not be any good in the morning,” Bill tells Johnny.
Something about that line I find hilarious. I laugh out loud, probably guaranteeing me a place in hell.
I told you, Happiness isn’t for everyone. But I love it. It’s funny. It’s provocative. It pushes boundaries and buttons. It has an amazing cast. There’s really nothing else like it. Not even Life During Wartime, Solondz 2010 sequel to Happiness, compares to the original. Life During Wartime picks up about 10 years after Happiness ends. It features the same characters from Happiness but played by different actors, a technique Solondz introduced in his film Palindromes. Life During Wartime, which is based around the theme of forgiveness, isn’t as blatantly offensive as Happiness, but does have something that Happiness may have lacked — a sense of hope.
Sometimes all we need is a little hope.
Next week: New Meh-hee-co
Matt D.’s Top Five Ensemble Casts
5. Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Pam Grier, Jack Black and Christina Applegate in Mars Attacks! (1996)
4. Kenneth Branaugh, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Judi Dench in Hamlet (1996)
3. Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving and Elijah Wood in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
2. Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alfred Molina, Felicity Huffman, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall and Luis Guzman in Magnolia (1999)
1. Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights (1997)