'Happiness' tears at fabric that covers human frailites

November 06, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC


Today marks the Baltimore release of two films by Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes, promising directors who possess distinctive cinematic visions.

Haynes, whose "Velvet Goldmine," an ode to 1970's glam rock, opens at the Rotunda -- is best known for the 1995's "Safe," in which Julianne Moore played a homemaker anxious about her environment.

Solondz, -- whose "Happiness," a jaundiced portrait of family life, opens at the Charles -- gained wide renown with 1995's art-house hit "Welcome to the Dollhouse," a ruthlessly unsentimental portrait of 11-year-old nerd queen Dawn Wiener. At a time when even Hollywood's most independent offshoots seem dedicated to formula films and market-driven drivel, the Todds present encouraging evidence that film can still be a medium of experimentation and powerful imaginaytion.

Writer-director Todd Solondz first unleashed his gimlet-eyed, luridly stylized vision of suburban Gothic in the darkly funny "Welcome to the Dollhouse," a depiction of seventh grade at its most sadistic. With "Happiness," Solondz takes that vision to an even deeper, more disturbing level.

Peeling back the layers of hypocrisy that swaddle the most self-satisfied denizens of middle-class suburbia, Solondz reveals a wormy mess of feelings ranging from loneliness and despair to outright psychopathology.

Beholding the pathetic creatures of his making, Solondz makes us see what he sees -- an aggregation of characters whose evil and self-defeating habits aren't a function of wickedness as much as frailty. "Happiness," which has no genuinely happy moments but several painfully humorous ones, is a bright, troubling and occasionally surreal ode to human nature at its most fragile.

As the Chekhov of contemporary bourgeois angst, Solondz is entitled to his structural conceit: three sisters -- Joy, Trish and Helen -- live in their New Jersey hometown, pursuing radically different lives. Joy (Jane Adams) is up-front about her misery at being 30 and single in an almost embarrassing way. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who is married to therapist Bill (Dylan Baker), keeps referring to her two kids, dog and upscale house as "having it all," a phrase she habitually puts in smug, finger-wagging quotation marks. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a lithe beauty who subsists on a diet of cigarettes, coffee and male adoration, sighs her way through existence as a successful novelist. "You have no idea how hard it is to be so admired," she whispers to Trish.

She's right. Not only must Helen put up with a parade of well-built male groupies traipsing in and out of her swank apartment, she is the subject of the violent sexual fantasies of her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Allen arrives home from his computer job every night in a sweaty welter of paranoid desire, furiously dialing up phone numbers and uttering vile vulgarities to the women who answer. Among the most unsettling images in "Happiness" is Hoffman's damp portrayal of this desperate character. If negative product placement were actionable, New Jersey Telephone would have an airtight lawsuit.

Will Allen ever meet Helen face to face? Will Joy ever live up to her name? Will Trish discover that Bill -- whose wholesome, white-bread character would have been played by William H. Macy in earlier times -- is a practicing pedophile?

The answers to these questions and many more interlock and play off one another through the course of "Happiness," which Solondz directs as a tightly constructed journey to doom. As their worlds spin dangerously out of control, Joy, Helen and Trish insistently polish their own delusions that everything's fine, wiping away any lingering smudge of self-awareness.

BTC Unlike the similarly-themed "Your Friends and Neighbors," which was nothing more than a series of nasty vignettes one-upping each other in pure hatefulness, "Happiness" presents viewers with a far more complex portrait of its characters, who veer between the unspeakable and the heartbreakingly tender.

"Happiness," which won the critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, was dropped by October Films when the studio's parent company, Universal Pictures, objected to a scene in which Bill explains his sexual predilections in graphic detail to his young son. The scene is all the more unsettling because the audience has seen him be a warm and understanding father to the same son during a period of sexual confusion just moments before. It's a measure of Hollywood's hypocrisy that studios don't shy away from depicting the most lurid aspects of sexual deviancy while demurring when it comes to frank talk and honest, troubling contradictions.

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