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