Lionsgate // 1998 // 140 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 15th, 2003
Happiness is relative.
Todd Solontz's Happiness is an infamous film. Those in the know have gone out of their way to see it, mostly because their friends have refused to talk about it. Out of idle curiosity, they watch it, and then, become completely mute on the subject. Through this strange "unword-of-mouth," its notoriety has spread like wildfire.
Too bad the DVD presentation is lousy, because this film deserves better. A non-anamorphic transfer and no extras make for a moderate presentation at best.
Happiness explores the strange correlation between happiness and isolation through the lives of three sisters. Joy (Jane Adams) is rebounding from her latest breakup (John Lovitz), trying to kick-start her singing career and to find solace in helping others. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is an amazingly successful, yet spiritually empty and vapid, writer looking for drama in her glamorous, shallow life, which she may have found in an obscene phone caller (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is a happy housewife who has a beautiful home and two children with her psychiatrist husband, Bill (Dylan Baker). Problem being is that Bill has an interesting hobby that involves a serious level of inappropriateness involving other people's children.
Suffice it to say, the potential for social conflict is high. All the characters interact and come in contact with one another and affect each other in varied ways, as all try to answer for themselves questions about happiness and their own lives.
And also, a lot of seriously messed up stuff happens. Like you wouldn't even believe.
Like his other films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling), Solondz's films inspire a serious level of participation from their audience in terms of classification. These are comedies, in their own way. They are extremely challenging in their attempt to shatter reasonable expectations and boundaries and distort the mythos of suburban life.
Also, his films are absolutely insane.
But that is part of the fun. Trying to keep a sense of humor while watching Happiness is almost as funny as watching the level of discomfort of anybody else in the room watching it with you. But despite its surrealist sense of humor, Happiness can be downright troubling at times. This is a seriously menacing film. There is practically no detail of the film that can be discussed here, simply because the description is enough to violate the terms of the Geneva Convention.
This is a film that inspires a serious level of dread. You can taste it in the air. Even the most innocent scenes come across as if the world has been shifted to the left an inch. Things look familiar, and real, and normal -- and yet, there is an ever-present sense of malice, of dread.
In fact, the film gets so awkward, so uncomfortable at times, that you cannot actually bring yourself to watch the film uninterrupted. I found myself in the kitchen a few times, refreshing my beverage, without having paused the film -- something I never do.
The camera is unrelenting. It fixates on the most awkward, absurd, uncomfortable situation possible, and just when you think the film could not possible linger another second longer, it lingers for another two hours.
Personally, I think the film is hilarious, and I found myself laughing at the general absurdity of the images in front of me. I also found myself laughing as some sort of defense mechanism.
Suffice it to say, this is not a film that makes you happy. I wonder if that constitutes false advertising.
No, probably not -- must be ironic, then.
The visual presentation is lackluster and nothing to get too excited about. The transfer is overly soft, with poor detail and white scratches and marks throughout. Colors are reasonable, with grays being strongest and full of tone and clarity, and greens being particularly vivid and well represented.
But the crème de la crème of Happiness is the 4:3 letterbox presentations. That's right; full screen with non-removable black bars to simulate the original aspect ratio (1.85:1). Nothing even remotely anamorphic about this presentation, I assure you.
What year is it again? Are DVDs still coming out this way? Why any new DVD would show a movie this way -- today -- is beyond me. Drop a rose on the doorsteps of our widescreen television-owning brethren. They sleep sadly tonight.
The sound is very good, and the music is one of the best features of the film -- the swelling of violins during the most uncomfortable of moments only heightens the sense of discomfort and humor in truly skilled ways. The 2.0 Dolby Surround sound is well balanced, clear, and free from any major problems.
The only extras are cast and crew biographies, and even for cast/crew bios, are pretty skimpy. A shame, because the film deserves some serious attention -- I would love to hear the director speak on length about the film. Alas, we shall probably see no further DVD releases of Happiness, as the film has been drafted into the Lions Gate Signature Series, where it will probably remain on discount racks for many moons to come.
Happiness is a composition of awkwardness. The director, playing one emotion, one character off the next in a fantastic dance of absurdity, manages to uproot the expectations of the viewers and create a startling and challenging film experience. While the subject matter is not to the taste of...well, anybody -- is a good film not a film that inspires an emotional reaction, good or bad?
Rest assured, there are some serious emotional reactions in this film -- anxiety, nervousness, queasiness, discontentment, anger, and disbelief -- need I say more?
Be it good or bad, the verdict is left to personal taste, but despite its onerous subject matter, Happiness is a movie that unnerves the heck out of most people, and for good reason.
Myself, I am more unnerved by the letterboxed transfer.
What, didn't you understand before? This is a seriously @$#*ed up movie!
That's a pretty good rebuttal where I come from.
Like the spiritual brethren of filmmakers that include people like Cronenberg and Lynch, Todd Solondz makes movies about discontentment. His films are the antithesis of high-action bloodbath films where discontentment is glorified in beautiful works of carnality and violence -- in fact, very little actually happens on-screen in Happiness; and yet, one is filled with a profound and uneasy sense of how messed up things can get. The most interesting thing about the film, though, is the strong support the film has received, despite the almost total unwillingness to directly talk openly about the film.
Happiness is a private experience, one that is difficult to articulate and express in a public forum, partly because it touches upon anxieties that are deeply rooted in our modern, suburban psyche -- and partly because they're really @#$%ed up.
Despite the rather lackluster presentation, the film is a good bargain, and a must-see for anybody looking for a challenging film experience.
Required viewing at least once, the court orders those who have not seen Happiness to watch it in a room with their friends. Whoever wins is the first person to break the silence.
Being reasonably priced, the court grudgingly recommends the purchase of this DVD; since this is the second release of the film, it is doubtful that a better version will see the light of day anytime soon.
The court also hereby declares letterbox presentations as being all-around sucky, and in contempt of being good.
[Editor's Note: This review replaces a review of the previous Universal release, reviewed by former Chief Justice Sean McGinnis.]
Review content copyright © 2003 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Cast/Crew Bios