**1/2 140 minutes | Unrated (would probably be NC-17)
Opened: Friday, October 23, 1998
Written & directed by Todd Solondz

Starring Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazarra, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Ashley & Rufus Read


Don't watch this one with the kids, folks. It's not a video date, either. This picture is intensely focused on its twisted personalities. If you have a smaller TV, pan & scan might even be a good idea so you get the most face as possible.

Highly skilled 'Happiness' an excersize in sexual taboo envelope-pushing

By Rob Blackwelder

Todd Solondz makes movies as a form of catharsis.

Two years ago his "Welcome to the Dollhouse," a tormentingly personal and visceral parable of extreme teenage angst and desperation through the eyes of an inept and gawky junior high school girl, became the awkward prom queen of the festival circuit thanks to its edgy realism.

His follow-up, "Happiness," is a quantum leap into adulthood. A masterfully constructed dark chronicle of disturbingly modern romantic and sexual peccadilloes, it is the kind of movie that is so effective at unsettling the audience that it dares you to hate it.

The problem is, as exceptional as "Happiness" is from a film theory perspective -- exploring sexual insecurity and perversion through a family in dire need of major therapy -- it is a movie without a discernible purpose.

"Happiness" opens with a scene in which a mousy, instantly pitiable woman (Jane Adams) tries to break up with an equally vulnerable boyfriend -- played with surprisingly deep bitterness and insecurity by "Saturday Night Live" alum Jon Lovitz -- before he breaks up with her. Solondz uses this scene to stake out a limber balance between harsh emotion and nervous laughter that he maintains through the twisted tale to come.

Solondz slowly reveals this woman's deep depression over her terminally single history of desperately latching on to emotionally abusive men. But through a series of overlapping vignettes we discover that despite her overwhelming perpetual misery, she is the most balanced member of a supremely dysfunctional family that seems to attract disturbed freaks like flypaper.

Lara Flynn Boyle taps latent character flaws left over from her "Twin Peaks" days as one of Adams' two sisters, a breathy writer and poet who entertains thoughts of an affair with an obscene phone caller and wishes aloud she'd been raped as a child because she thinks trauma would add depth to her poetry.

Cynthia Stevenson ("Home For the Holidays") plays her other sister, a halcyon housewife who maintains a facade of suburban perfection before discovering her husband is a pedophile of the first order.

But the three sisters are mostly anchors for stories about the perverts they draw into their lives. The spotlight falls most often on Flynn Boyle's masturbation-mad phone-caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Next Stop Wonderland") and the pedophile husband (Dylan Baker), who rapes a couple kids off-screen in the course of the film and gets aroused by graphic birds and bees discussions with his young son. (I don't know what kind of screwed up stage mom would let their kid take this role.)

Successfully finding sympathy and humor in even these most twisted of circumstances, Solondz 's script is just too authentic to write off as perversion, despite his unnecessary obsession with ejaculation. Graphic and often appalling, intensely acted (especially by Baker who has the most thankless role) and strongly directed, "Happiness" is nothing if not provocative. But ultimately the question is why would anyone want to make such a film?

Because of its delving into underground sexuality, comparisons could be reasonably drawn to David Chronenberg's equally controversial "Crash," a shadowy, whacked film about fetishists who get off by involving themselves in high-speed traffic accidents. But while "Crash" was highly disturbing, it was a successful surrealistic experiment in sensory filmmaking.

By contrast, "Happiness" doesn't seem to have such goals. It's merely a obsessive document of warped sexuality.

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