Sunday, January 24, 2010

Being Happy

Todd Solondz's most famous film sums up its view of its characters, the audience, humanity, et. al in its opening scene in which Jon Lovitz's Andy, on the wrong end of a breakup in a chichi restaurant, tells Jane Adams' Joy, "You're shit and until the day you will always be shit," the shattering silence shared between them fading into the film's title, written in glorious wedding cake font... "Happiness." You know you're in the 1990s thus, a time when irony enjoyed a carte blanche in our stultified, deadpanned culture, winking so much you might wonder if we didn't all suffer from some kind of nervous disorder of the oracular variety. Depending on whether or not you long for the Clinton years, Solondz's pretensions are the zenith or nadir of that careless affectation.

The story is set where the butt of most jokes originate, New Jersey. Revolving around the three sisters of the Jordan family, the story's center is Joy, who Solondz bludgeons with a series of Job-like trials that leave her loveless, ridiculed and cheated. Solondz, operating like a Judaic godhead with punitive bills to reckon, does not equate good works with success since Joy, a sweet-tempered aspiring musician floundering between day jobs, cannot seem to do right screwing up to the very end. Though self-righteous when making comparisons, Joy's sisters aren't much better off. One sister, Helen (Laura Flynn Boyle), is a successful, feted poet who takes advantage of the American tendency toward morbidity writing lurid poems about being raped as a child (knowing she's a phony for having lived an easy life). Molly Shannon's Trish is a perky, judgmental married mother of three, whose husband is the film's chief bait, a sympathetic pedophile.

Easily the creepiest scenes in a creepy movie are the father-son talks between Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) and Billy. It begins when 11-year-old Billy asks his father what cum is. This leads to an explanation of masturbation and even an offer from Bill to help Billy facilitate the operation of his gonads. He politely declines. Billy has a friend named Johnny Grasso on his baseball team, a boy whom Johnny's father confides to Bill is a "fag" (Bill is a psychiatrist, thus simple people feel safe telling him embarrassing stuff). Suspecting that little, effeminate Johnny Grasso is as his father suggests, Bill drugs him with a tuna sandwich during a sleepover, taking his perversions to the next level. Another friend of Billy's, Ronald Farber, is molested by Bill when his parents are out of town. He is eventually found out by the Grassos and arrested. The family estate house is scribbled with accusatory vitriolic graffiti and his wife walks out on him with the kids, abandoning him to his presumed ignominious fate.

Judging him by his actions alone, Bill is without question a monster. Violating the most sacred lines of decency, he drugs little boys and, in his words, "fucks them." But his character, perhaps because Solondz finds his double life so fascinating, is also the most developed: in this cast of selfish, self-absorbed, self-righteous whiners, Bill alone knows he is "sick," and feels real pain because he knows it's wrong-- abominably so-- but can't help himself anyway. In probably the most heartbreaking father-son heart-to-heart ever dramatized, Billy asks his father about his actions, learning that Bill, had he a second chance, would do it again. Billy then asks his father if he would ever "fuck" him, to which Bill replies, "No, I'd jerk off instead."

Don't Play Footsie With the Man at the Head of the Table

It's really difficult for me to understand what Solondz is really doing with this film: is he humanizing the child molester or is he just "fucking" with us? After all, there is no redemption in his world. In order to have a happy ending, a film's characters must feel motivated to resolve their crises. But when the crises are the humanity of the persons themselves you've got nowhere to go.

Cleverly, happiness exists in Solondz's New Jersey but only in the clich├ęd ideas of saccharine pop music. In such contexts happiness sounds outrageous (if a little ironic). Through films, music, and fashion magazines, we get a skewed view of how we are supposed to be happy and it's usually expensive. What is soft afternoon light, beautiful literature, and good food worth if we can only see Big Picture facts which are that we are not only not rich and famous but unattractive and uninteresting? The Jordans and their intimates are victims of a society that blueprints its ideas of success and respectability, judging those with and without into categories of winners and losers, a simple system, really, that the majority of us (i.e. losers) deal with by turning off just about everything connected to the thought process. Case in point, the sisters' parents (Ben Gazarra and Louise Lasser), who are undergoing a separation because the father wants "to be alone." He has an affair. After climaxing the woman tells him not to feel guilty. Instead, he claims, "I feel nothing."

The film, "Happiness," is like reality TV: man's most embarrassing traits are brought to bear to an audience feeling correspondingly sanctimonious about witnessing such flaws. Watching these people screw up we tell ourselves we are distinct, above, or at least, not that stupid. "Happiness" belongs to the genre of 'rubberneck' cinema, in which we feel guilty for watching but gladly suffer our curiosities.

Had Solondz chosen a less ironic title for his intersecting storylines their emotional impact might have had more resonance-- the title choice thus feels as catastrophic as the characters themselves. He might have intended it to represent something elusive and ethereal, the goal that no one succeeds, but in this day and age such a title feels trite. Happiness, ha ha, what a joke. What Solondz produced is courageous enough without needing that kind of bullet proof armor.

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