Reprinted from the Dec. 1998 issue of Visual Parables
Unrated. Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 7.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Todd Solondz explores the darker side of the quest for happiness of a number of suburbanites, the film reminding one at times of a Robert Altman work with its intricate plot and wide range of characters– and its humorous, ironic viewpoint. All of the characters are lonely and trying to connect with someone else, with few, if any, of them ever succeeding.
Allen is a desperate loner pouring out his heart to his therapist Bill. He knows that he is boring, unable to stir any interest in himself in the women he dates. Little does he realize how boring he is, for Bill’s mind drifts away from his patient’s groans to run down lists of things he must do later.
The therapist has troubles of his own, feeling attracted to some of the friends of his young son Billy. The latter is disturbed also, confiding in his father that he has not been able to “come” (as in sexual stimulation) like his friends do.
Bill’s wife Trish thinks she is happily married, living in a nice suburban house with good neighbors–but she does miss Bill’s passion. She feels sorry for her sister Joy, single, and spectacularly unsuccessful in finding the right man (the ironically named Joy has had a disastrous date with Allen).
Joy still lives in the house their parents had lived in before moving to Florida, where they are just as unhappy in their loveless marriage. Trish often discusses Joy with their other sister Helen, a popular author living a glamorous life.
Each of them wonders at times if the other isn’t happier. Even successful Helen is lonely, so when a man stalks her on the telephone, she responds positively, not suspecting that the caller is her geeky neighbor Allen, whom she barely acknowledges when they pass in the hall or elevator. Allen is harmless, but the even more pathetic neighbor Kristina, who sets her sight on him, is capable of a dark, passionate deed.
The characters, in their self-absorbed pursuit of happiness, understand little of the truth of Jesus’ teaching that those who lose their lives will find them. Joy comes close, when she seeks work as a teacher of immigrants out of an altruistic desire to help others, but in Todd Solondz’s quirky world, this has unhappy consequences–not only must she walk through a picket line of striking teachers and endure their jeers of “Scab” for replacing one of them, the students themselves resent her, apparently preferring to have no class at all than one taught by a scab. And the Russian student whom she becomes attracted to and dates, turns out to be a thief who steals her TV and stereo, and then, when she finds out where he lives and goes to confront him, wheedles money out of her.
This is a difficult film to digest, partly because the father is a pedophile, and partly because we are not sure at times how to take the characters. In the theater I attended, for example, the young adults laughed and smirked during what seemed to me like a tender scene between Bill and his son Billy. Bill is under investigation by the police in the molesting of two of Billy’s friends, so the boy has heard rumors concerning his father at school. When he asks if they are true, Bill, instead of evading him, confesses that it is. Just how this or the ensuing destruction of the man and his family is funny escapes me.
Happiness is not a film for everyone (although do not fear, Solondz does not show Bill in his act. In this sense the film is as discreet as any film of the 40’s in regard to adult sex, but the creator’s probing of the darker side of human life, including that of a man supposedly in a helping/healing profession, show again that comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but flow back and forth along the continuum we call life.
The saddest and most provocative scene: In the middle of the night, after he has given in to his terrible compulsion, Bill comes to his wife sleeping in bed and asks her, “Do you love me?’ She sleepily replies that she does, but she is too groggy to hear the pleading in his voice. Bill is looking for unconditional love, something that even if she were wide awake, she could not do, because Bill by his unspeakable act has placed himself in a category even lower than were the lepers in Jesus’ time. He knows that sooner or later he will be found out and branded as a pedophile, and he desperately wants and needs reassurance that he is still a lovable human being.
To the credit of actor Dylan Baker and director/writer Todd Solondz Bill is presented not as the moral monster to which we react in fear and loathing, but as a terribly flawed human being in need of unconditional love. We do not know what will happen to him, Todd Solondz apparently following the example of Federico Fellini, who told an interviewer that he did not like films in which everything was neatly tied together at the end. He believed that it was the duty of the filmmaker to present the problem clearly and from various angles and leave it to the audience to wrestle with it and find their own solutions afterward. Sounds very much like another parable maker of long ago, doesn’t it?