1998’s Happiness is an ironic bittersweet comedy, depending on your point of view, like a slightly more burlesque Mike Leigh film or a slightly more sober Simpsons episode. Its unique sense of humor is exposed from the opening restaurant scene, which (without giving you spoilers) opens as an almost stereotype re-lay-shun-ship sequence, where a couple is breaking up with teary-eyed dignity, then veers into total farce in which one of them gets humiliated and owned in an outright hilarious manner. The scene also defines your equation with the film’s characters: that you can (and will often) laugh at their foibles and failings, and yet sympathize because they are real enough for you to care.
The episodic plot is built around an ensemble cast; the connecting factor comes from 3 sisters and their interactions with the other characters. Interestingly, Solondz’s script does not center the triptych on the sisters themselves; only one (the youngest, Joy, who we see in the brilliant opening scene) can be described as a major character. Apart from Joy who shifts jobs and lovers in search of the elusive commitment, we meet Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a masturbating loner slob nursing wet dreams of his neighbor – Joy’s eldest sister Helen, a hawt and successful novelist. Unable to strike up a normal conversation, Allen can only make anonymous phone calls (with sometimes hilarious results).
The other main character is Dr. Bill Applewood (Dylan Baker, brilliantly played). Married to Joy’s middle sister Trish, Bill is a psychiatrist and caring family man. Bill is also a pedophile craving to exercise his fetishes on his son’s friends. Aside from these threads there is one (less important, in my view) of the sisters’ parents separating after 40 years of marriage because their father just wants “to be alone”.
All of the above must sound wholly depressing, and sure enough, Happiness’ major players are a textbook of neurotic behavior. But Solondz is able to extract the laughs from his material without, in my view, ever cheapening it (the Filthy Critic disagrees). His characters are consistent and superbly etched, his dialog is smart and funny. Check out this exchange between Helen and Joy:
“Don’t think I’m laughing AT you, I’m laughing WITH you”
“But I’m not laughing.”
This is but a tiny sliver of the brilliant humor that pervades the script. One also appreciates that, apart from the odd contrived moment (an episode between a certain fat woman and a janitor has a bunged-in-for-gag-value feel), the story is unforced and fleshed out without ever getting tiresome through its running length, and thankfully does not pander to the common tendency to engineer neatly-tied-up-smiley-happy endings for its cast.
Frequently hilarious, occasionally shocking, and tender without being sappy, Happiness is in sum a masterful and entertaining portrait of a modern dysfunctional society, one that richly deserves all the appreciation it has got .