Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

8 April 1999 Edition

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Cinema: But are you happy?


Todd Solondz's new film Happiness which opens at the Screen in Dublin on the 16th of April, is aptly described by it's producer, Ted Hope, as a ``tragic comedy'', though in parts, more tragic than funny.

As in the highly acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz explores the dark side of human nature and again manages brilliantly to maintain the fine balance between heartbreak and humor. Happiness is a brilliantly-written independent film that manages to tackle subjects that most Hollywood moguls either skirt around or glamourise.

Set in New Jersey, the plot interweaves the lives of several central characters, who each in their own way believe, as is the wont of human nature, that what they haven't got is what they want, and if they have it, they'll be happy. And the other extreme of the smugness of those who think that they have it all, as does Cynthia Stevenson's character, Trish Maplewood. Married to psychiatrist Bill, they live the American dream, nice home, three kids and a dog. At least she thought she had it all until it transpires that Bill, for all his lovely qualities, has a penchant for his son Billy's (marvellously played by Rufus Read) pre-pubescent school friends. Todd Solondz tackles the subject of child abuse in a way that while stomach-churning, is brilliantly written and explored.

On the other side of the Happiness fence there are Trish Maplewood's two sisters. The quiet, even repressed Joy (Jane Adams) who her family believes to be a bit of a loser, hopes her life, both romantically and careerwise, is going to happen any day now. The other sibling, worldly-wise Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), an acclaimed author, spends her time wishing she had some real-life authenticity to bring to her writing. So much so that she tries to strike up a relationship with her anonymous stalker, the sad and lonely Allen, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, during his obscene phone calls to her. The harmless Allen, it emerges, has his own admirer in the not so harmless Kristina (Camryn Manheim), whose confession of murder makes Allen's sad existance of masturbating during obscene phone calls quite uneventful.

Also thrown into this melting pot of suburbia are the sisters' parents, played by Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser, who in turn are coming to terms with their own miserable lives in Florida, as well as a Russian thief called Vlad (Jared Harris) and lonely divorcee Diane (Elizabeth Ashely).

With so many central characters, a lesser writer and director could easily have failed in creating such a tight and easy to watch film, but Todd Solondz achieved his aim of ``honestly examining the appeal of living in this kind of world and how it pulls us and perhaps pushes us away'', in a manner that will keep cinemagoers glued to the screen - not merely because the subjects are compelling but because of the identification the audience will undoubtedly share with the humanity of the characters.

Happiness, a winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, is a well written, well acted tragic comedy about people who, in their pursuit of happiness, struggle to make some sort of a connection in their lives but for the most part, seem to fail miserably while trying to attain it.

The wonderful Cynthia Stevenson gets a rude awakening from suburban slumber in Happiness.

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