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Happiness
1998 - No rating - 140 Mins.
Director: Todd Solondz
Producer: Ted Hope, Christine Vachon
Written By: Todd Solondz
Starring: Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cynthia Stevenson
Review by: James O'Ehley
   
'There is only one inborn error,' wrote Arthur Schopenhauer, 'and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy. So long as we persist in this inborn error the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of maintaining a happy existence...'

So paradoxically, the best chance we have at being happy is to give up all our expectations of being happy in the first place! Those 19th-century German existentialists, hey? Along with Nietzsche’s dictum that 'that which does not kill us makes us stronger' this is the single quote that reminds one most of Calvin’s (of Calvin & Hobbes fame) dad, or probably one’s own dad for that matter.

Anyway, the myriad of characters in Todd Solondz’s indie 1998 drama, “Happiness,” do not seem to have taken Schopenhauer’s dictum to heart. Here is a bunch of self-centered persons doing their damnedest to be happy, only to be frustrated at every point. One could argue that this is because they are frustrated by the efforts of others – 'hell is other people' as Sartre said (since we’re quoting all the existentialist philosophers here). They are restricted by their relationships with friends, family, lovers and (in one case) society as such.

However, one suspects that these characters would be unhappy no matter what. Some innate flaw prevents them from ever being happy. In this sense, Happiness reminded me a lot of the excellent novel, “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen. Think a more sordid and sexual version of Altman’s “Short Cuts” crossed with “The Corrections” and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect.

Like “The Corrections”, I was at first reluctant to see “Happiness”. Reviews and plot synopses made me believe that the movie would be more depressing and morbid than it ultimately was. Make no mistake: “Happiness” is a very funny movie, unexpectedly so, but in a mordant, black humored way. “I’m living in a state of irony,” one character remarks about living in much-aligned New Jersey. So does all the other characters.

These characters are drenched in irony, and sometimes they are bitterly aware of this. “Happiness” is an ensemble drama that follows the lives of several characters whose lives are somehow loosely interconnected with each other. Amongst others, there is an overweight computer programmer who is sexually obsessed with his next door neighbor. Then there is the psychologist treating him, who seems to be in more need of a shrink himself since he displays an unhealthy infatuation with small boys. The shrink’s wife and the programmer’s object of lust are sisters. And so on.

The subject of pedophilia caused quite a stir back when “Happiness” came out and it was subsequently dumped by its initial distributors. Make no mistake: “Happiness” requires a strong stomach. It explicitly (though not graphically) depicts masturbation, It isn’t more graphic than most other American films and probably less so than any of the ugly nihilist French movies art house patrons have been ‘treated’ to in recent years. But the chances are your granny won’t like it and it probably won’t be a good first date movie.

However, boasting some of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in quite a while, “Happiness” is fast-paced and never dull despite its long-ish running time. It is also one of the most powerful and thought-provoking movies I have seen in quite a while. Like the recent classic “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson, it’ll soon have you quoting German philosophers in coming to terms with it.

Some notes regarding the Region 2 DVD: I’m afraid that this ‘Signature Series’ DVD distributed by Lion’s Gate doesn’t quite cut it. While Lion’s Gate should be congratulated for being brave enough to distribute “Happiness”, the DVD isn’t quite up to par. The compression contains all kinds of image flaws such bleeding colors, etc. Also, this disc offers practically no extras and apparently doesn’t offer any upgrade over the previous DVD issued by Trimark.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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