Film: The Big Picture: Suburban perversions


The secret of Happiness? It's that everybody's got secrets. Todd Solondz's astonishing tragicomedy pokes around various bedrooms and hallways of New Jersey, listening in on the hilarious, heart-rending and occasionally horrifying business that passes for suburban private life.

The face which a Solondz character offers to the world usually gives no indication of the turbulence within. A man who boasts to a woman at dinner that he's "champagne" (he actually uses the word) goes home and kills himself. A husband and father of three turns out to be a child molester. A computer analyst spends nights making sweatily obscene phone- calls. If New Jersey is anything to go by, then Thoreau was right: the mass of men really do lead lives of quiet desperation.

Solondz investigated similar levels of anxiety and alienation in his 1995 feature Welcome to the Dollhouse, a coming-of-age picture which portrayed adolescence as a more or less continual nightmare.

Happiness is a more ambitious ensemble piece, at whose centre is a trio of sisters. Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) is a sensitive 30-year-old struggling with her career and hoping to break through as a Joni Mitchell-type singer- songwriter. In the meantime she teaches at a language school and searches longingly for a boyfriend. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a vacuously beautiful writer striving to hide her low self-esteem (even though her literary friends include a certain "Salman" who rings from London). Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is the perky housewife, and the most interesting of the three because she has deluded herself into happiness. Her way of maintaining the illusion is to patronise Joy. "Just because you've hit 30 doesn't mean you can't be fresh any more," she tells her with poisonous solicitude.

Orbiting this core is a host of characters whose perversions and neuroses hammer home the irony of the film's title: these people aren't so much in pursuit of happiness as in terrified flight from loneliness. Take the Jordan sisters' parents, Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser); after 40 years together he wants to separate, only he can't summon much enthusiasm for the woman he's supposed to be leaving her for. Convinced of his own boringness, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can only connect with the beautiful woman down the hall by telephone - anonymously, and with his trousers unzipped. He in turn is pestered by his needy neighbour Kristina (Camryn Manheim), whose idea of a chat-up line is to tell him about the recent murder of their doorman. If it weren't so tragic, you'd double up laughing.

Solondz tends to work in duologues, monitoring conversation for its helpless pratfalls and unthinking cruelties. It's the kind of deadpan observation that Neil LaBute attempted in Your Friends and Neighbours, but that failed because he fell in love with the sound of his own cynicism. Solondz has a greater range and a subtler discrimination, and his characters, for all their inadequacies, have the authentic stamp of human beings.

This is most poignantly brought to bear in his portrayal of Trish's husband, Bill (Dylan Baker), an apparently regular guy who dreams of murder and contrives to rape his 11-year-old son's sleepover friend. Solondz is handling inflammatory stuff here, but he never stoops to titillation or pats himself on the back for broaching a taboo subject. Instead, he goes as far as he possibly can to humanize perversion: some of the film's most thoughtful (and most excruciating) moments occur between Bill and his son, who is himself worried by his own inchoate sexuality. The way in which these scenes sway between tenderness and sick farce is characteristic of Solondz's audacious balancing act. He's a poet of embarrassment.

Sex is, of course, the animating principle behind Happiness, whether as personal therapy or party spoiler. It's a Fury driving these men and women to madness, or despair, or both. In a typically honest exchange, one character says: "Women are pathetic gossips and men are just..." "Pathetic?" suggests her partner. On that touching note of pillow talk they proceed to make love. There is an almost Larkinesque morbidity in the film's treatment of sexual isolation. I kept thinking of his lines from "Talking in Bed": "It becomes still more difficult to find/ Words at once true and kind,/ Or not untrue and not unkind." It's certainly difficult for this lot. Even when somebody gets a break here, you're braced for an unpleasant pay-off - which duly arrives.

Indeed, the film would be scarcely watchable, let alone enjoyable, without the stupendous efforts of its cast. Top of the heap for bravery is Dylan Baker, who manages something I never expected to see in American cinema: the sympathetic portrayal of a paedophile. His straight-arrow, Kennedy- era look serves to make him even more disturbing. If this were any other movie he'd walk off with it, but there's an even better performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the piteous Allen. Hoffman has already impressed as the gay gofer in Boogie Nights and the obsequious assistant of The Big Lebowski; he even escaped with dignity intact from the unspeakable Patch Adams, and that's quite something. Here, his pudgy, furtive crank caller says more about solitariness and sexual failure than the last 10 years of Woody Allen movies put together. Just to watch him sucking Coke through a straw as he listens to a ghoulish confession of murder is a pleasure unrivalled by any movie this year. Hoffman is already a great actor, so look out for him.

Look out also for terrific work by Cynthia Stevenson (she played Tim Robbins' discarded girlfriend in The Player), Louise Lasser, Camryn Manheim and Jared Harris. It's rare to have an ensemble as strong as this, and rarer still for it to be paired with a fine script. Even the Jordans' dog gets a stand-out scene at the close.

Happiness isn't an easy experience to digest. It will disquiet and affront, and will probably cause arguments between close friends. But anyone interested in a young talent finding his voice and saying something real about social and sexual deviancy should go and see it.

Todd Solondz is interviewed on page 12

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas