THE CRITICS: CINEMA: Happiness gets you down

Happiness (18) Director: Todd Solondz Starring: Jane Adams, Ben Gazzara, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan Baker, Cynthia Stevenson 140 mins
Todd Solondz's new film (following Welcome to the Dollhouse) is at least the fourth in cinema history to bear the brutal one-word title "Happiness". The first one I know of was a surreal farce made in 1934 by the Soviet director Alexander Medvedkin. A year later Marcel L'Herbier filmed Henry Bernstein's boulevard drama Le Bonheur with Charles Boyer and Gaby Morlay. And, exactly 30 years after that, Agnes Varda made another Le Bonheur, now long forgotten but a minor succes de scandale in its day. It goes without saying that, in every case, the title was ironic. In fact, the word "happiness", as used nowadays, would seem to have so definitively severed contact with its original, unironic meaning that maybe it should henceforth be officially spelt with quotation marks.

If that were to happen, then Solondz's movie would be titled "Happiness", and quite right too, since the cinema has seldom exposed one to a more uniformly unhappy collection of losers.

Some of them are unhappy because they're plain - to be more precise, fat. (Solondz really has a thing about obesity.) This is true of Andy (Jon Lovitz), who commits suicide after an agonisingly tongue-tied date with the lonely, put-upon Joy (Jane Adams); of the sweaty Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gets his masturbatory kicks from making obscene phone-calls to Joy's sister, the svelte novelist Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle); and of Allen's nosy neighbour Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who, it transpires, has repulsed the attentions of her apartment block's widowed porter by stabbing him and stashing his body parts in the freezer.

The others are just plain unhappy. Helen, marooned in the wilds of New Jersey, where most of the action unfolds, secretly fears that she's a fraud (even though we see her taking a long-distance call from a certain "Salman" in London). Her - and Joy's - sister, the ostensibly happily married Trish (Helen Jordan), is complacently convinced that she "has it all" - the inverted commas, fingers daintily perched in the air like crows on a washing line, are her own - until she discovers that her psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) has been molesting their son Billy's schoolchums. As for the three sisters' senior-citizen parents (Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara), they're meanwhile in the throes of a messily acrimonious separation.

If this all sounds like a slightly breathless attempt to bring someone up to date with a long-running TV soap, it was meant to. If anything is shocking in Solondz's narrative, it isn't the paedophilia, the masturbation, the obscene phone-calls or even the running gag about Billy labouring towards his very first orgasm - after films like Sitcom and Festen, the lewdly dysfunctional family unit is now almost a cliche of contemporary cinema - but the tenor of sweet reasonableness in which the characters' ever more outrageous improprieties are aired. It's a little like that curious constant of Dallas that had the Ewings gather every morning around the Southfork breakfast table, no matter that they'd been at each other's throats the day before.

Thus, instead of concentrating on the birds and the bees, Bill's man- to-man chats with Billy are about the length of the boy's penis ("Would you like me to measure it?" Bill caringly enquires) and the milky fluid which the male organ ejaculates when titillated; yet they're conducted in a hilariously deadpan tone familiar from the cosier, chintzier sitcoms of yore. That's already very funny, but what makes the film a genuinely unsettling experience is that it's rarely content with the easy, gravelly guffaws of parody. In the last of their chats, Billy asks his dad what it felt like when he was sexually abusing the "girlish" Johnny Grasso and, honest to the end, Bill replies, "It was great." Now we all know what we think about paedophilia; but, after all, if it weren't great for paedophiles, they wouldn't do it. Yet Solondz's is the only movie I've seen (the two Lolitas apart) that permits itself simply to register that fact.

If, visually, Happiness is nothing to write home about, consisting as it does of an unrelieved sequence of shots of talking heads, Solondz is a brilliant director of actors. Dylan Baker's performance as the pitiful Bill is especially astonishing: he contrives to render the character so sympathetic, so affecting in his horror at his deviance, that one comes disturbingly close to identifying with him. Singling out any one performer, however, would be unjust, for they're all marvellous. The only problem I had was with Ben Gazzara. Not that he's to any degree inferior to the others: just that his features, now as indelibly marked by a lengthy career in show-business as an alcoholic's are by a lifetime's intake of gin, seem too sleek and glamorous for the spottily flawed ordinariness of the film's environment.

Happiness is a fine, consistently absorbing work, worth a couple of hours out of anyone's life. Ultimately, though, it's perhaps too much in thrall to a current and increasingly tiresome stereotype of "American indie cinema" to probe - as painfully as one can't help thinking it could and should have probed - the humanity that lies at the source of even the least defensible of sexual practices. Yes, it's both droll and moving, but sometimes the stitching is visible, and I for one would have preferred to smile less and be moved more. If Solondz had had the courage to emancipate himself from the neat ironies and cute symmetries of his soap-opera structure, and opted instead for a free-wheeling, Cassavetes-like open-endedness, he might have made a film that was truly unique. Instead, he's settled for one which is sui generis only in the sense that, for the present batch of American independents, the sui generis has itself become a genre.