For about its first twenty minutes – and especially during its stark, hilarious opening scene – Happiness promises to be a gripping and unsettling movie.
Reminiscent of Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid (1972), the film begins with a dissection of an awful, final date between two inarticulate, hopelessly alienated people, Joy (Jane Adams) and Andy (Jon Lovitz).
Soon Joy is into unhelpful chat sessions with the various members of her family – particularly her sisters Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and her mother Mona (Louise Lasser) – and the film becomes a fresco, alternating in a leisurely fashion between plots involving all these characters.
Sexual dread is the keynote in most of these vignettes: obscene phone calls, rape, castration and abandonment comprise only a sampling of the tasteless menu.
The skills of writer-director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1996) do not yet match his ambitions. He obviously has a good rapport with actors, but his visual style is maddeningly plain and unvaried. He creates almost no frisson from the large, sprawling plot, with its fashionable reliance on coincidence and disconnection.
Yet, for all its fatal artlessness, Happiness certainly generates heated discussion.
In many respects, it resembles a flatter, drearier version of the overpraised Boogie Nights (1997). Like that film, it pays elaborate homage to the multiple character and story structure of Altman's Short Cuts (1993) – as most American movies of ambition these days seem to do – and it has a similarly inflated running time.
Both films are full of casual deaths, suicides and unsatisfying relationships. Solondz has an even more mechanical and jaded sense of musical irony than Paul Thomas Anderson – here, sappy middle of the road hits by Air Supply and Barry Manilow are juxtaposed with the banalities of suburban life.
Both Boogie Nights and Happiness revel in a peculiar brand of hip '90s nihilism. By savagely divesting their characters of any avenues for hope, resistance or escape, Anderson and Solondz believe they are making a powerful comment on the misery of modern life. While Boogie Nights at least managed to celebrate a sense of family (however perverse), Solondz poses as a neo-Fassbinder. Every character is simply glued into a bad place, and left to squirm there until the film exhausts its meagre repertoire of plot moves.
Like many contemporaneous movies (including U Turn  and In the Company of Men ), Happiness wallows in male guilt and self-loathing. Perhaps the inspiration for the film's glum title comes from Marlon Brando's famous speech in Last Tango in Paris (1972) in which he declares that happiness should be spelt "happenis". Solondz reduces male sexuality to its ejaculatory squirt, and then proceeds to render even that little spasm of joy as resolutely creepy, sick and unfeeling – cold comfort, indeed.
Beyond its vague, Zeitgeist pretensions, it is hard to fathom what Happiness is really about. The underlying logic of the film as revealed by the final scenes is shockingly homophobic – but, then again, heterosexuality is not exactly presented as a picnic either.
The heavy-handed portrayal of Boyle's character – as a gorgeous, frosty, ambitious, phony bitch – smacks of unresolved, misogynistic projection. In fact, most of the movie seems to issue from an amorphous mass of envies, frustrations and resentments that never add up to an angry or intriguing misanthropy (which was the one good feature of The Acid House ).
Happiness poses as a serious, searing film about big issues – social breakdown, sexual malaise, family oppression – while also firing the handy escape hatch of flip humour. But its studied amorality is, ultimately, simply not very interesting.
One only has to place Happiness beside a truly brave and complex movie about similar terrors underlying everyday life – Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – to expose Solondz's artistic shallowness and his lack of real respect for a world in crisis.
© Adrian Martin January 1999