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Starring Jon Lovitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Jane Adams
The story of three sisters from New Jersey, as they struggle with difficult life situations. The selfishness of the three sisters however, blinds them to what is going on around them as life in New Jersey gets stranger and stranger.
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This film is, almost certainly, one of the most polarising you could watch. It certainly isnít one for all the family and when it was released critics dismissed it as simply trying to shock people. With hindsight, even if it is a bit heavy-handed, Solondzís skewed view of modern life is as well observed as Magnolia and will stay with you long after youíve got through it.
Three sisters are going about their regular lives finding it difficult to get to grips with the modern world. The eldest sister Trish, the homemaker, canít understand why her little sister canít obtain the type of happiness she has acquired. The middle sister Helen, the artist, is struggling with the fact she writes about rape but has not experienced it, a fact bringing on much existential guilt. The youngest sister Joy has just dumped her boyfriend, Jon Lovitz as a particularly desperate interpretation of himself, and is having trouble either moving out of her parents or finding the happiness her sisters have.
The sisters are the linchpins of Happiness and the story is tied together by their lives, but the most interesting things in this film happen with them mainly oblivious to it. And while the three of them couldnít be more different they have one uniting factor which ensures you know they are sisters- their complete selfishness. From Joy dumping Lovitzís Andy because of how he makes her look to Helen playing with the neighbours feelings for her art, their actions are a constant stream of vain and vacuous attempts to find their own level of happiness.
Without the sisters the story would be a collection of unrelated events, Solondz uses them as bad examples of ambition and desire. The rest of the characters around them, while misfits, at least have some redeeming features. The art of creating this type of outsider is something that Solondz is particularly adept at.
His film prior to this, Welcome to the Dollhouse, saw Heather Matarazzo as an underachieving middle child struggling to come to terms with her newfound adolescence. The character was a complete outcast, indulging in wholly unsuitable practices, but she was relatable because of the hopelessness she exhibited and a yearning for essential normality. Solondz also later explored this search for a sense of self in his film Palindromes, a story of a girl who runs away from home to become pregnant at the age of thirteen. Various actresses played the part of the lead and the girls search for belonging and a unified is never completed.
While Welcome to the Dollhouse highlighted some issues, it was slightly immature in its approach and its targets werenít as effectively hit as they could have been. With Palindromes everything was overstated and the actions seemed specifically designed just to incite shock rather than having any relevance to plot. Happiness is the prime example of the director at work. But this wouldnít have been possible without some truly exceptional performances from the supporting cast.
Jon Lovitz is the first person to enter except for the sisters. Perfectly put upon, he is madly in love with Joy, so much so he has spent a large amount of money on a very special present for her. Her rejection of him however, quickly makes this shambling man spit out a torrent of abuse, and Lovitz is exceptional in his switch to spitting bile through tear-laden eyes. His suicide post this dinner isnít a tremendous surprise because of the self-hatred Jon Lovitz exhibits with every sad movement of Andyís face. He is the first victim of the three sisters; the second is loner Allen played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his strangest performances.
Living across the hall from Helen he fantasises day after day of finally getting the courage to go over there and have sex with her. With every inch of his body this is all he desires, unfortunately he is a chubby and very boring man, so boring in fact his therapist daydreams while hearing about it. Hoffmanís portrayal is cringe worthy as he makes Allen so skin crawlingly desperate you end up disliking him as much as he dislikes himself. This seems particularly difficult, to make you feel simultaneously sickened and sorry for a character, and itís a whirlwind performance; though it does have just a little bit too much masturbation. While these two characters are simply simpering followers of the sisters, the final character is the most compelling and itís the most amazing performance of the film.
Dylan Baker is exceptional and heartbreaking as the most loathed man of the film, but he manages something extraordinary. His penchant for deviant sexuality aside, he truly cares for his son and the scenes between the two of them are tear jerking. Itís an unbelievable performance from both actors in the scene as they so frankly discuss things and manage to convey such respect for each other throughout.
While the character of Bill is obviously deserving of his punishment Baker manages, what would seem impossible, and actually makes you feel sorry for him. Emasculated completely by his wife and trapped in a job he doesnít enjoy, he takes it so well and remains so calm that his crimes have managed to pass everyone by, he manages to hide in plain sight. He is a victim of the sisters but he leaves an indelible impression on his son who, even though his father is pretty much a monster, still loves him deeply- much more than his mother.
This isnít an easy watch and a lot of people wonít make it to the conclusion, and thereís a possibility those that do will wish they hadnít. But as a compelling look at the depths to which people will dive to in order to obtain the much sought after happiness, itís a masterpiece of bleak American storytelling.