Bleak Houses

Happiness doesn’t have much to spare. The Celebration isn’t.

Directed by Todd Solondz
Good Machine Releasing

The Celebration
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
October Films

Todd Solondz, the skinny guy with the thick glasses and oddly passionate drone, had an art-house smash in 1996 with Welcome to the Dollhouse, which reinforced the perception that art-house smashes are pictures that take one bleak, uncommercial idea and pummel you into a stupor with it. Telling the story of a myopic adolescent girl who’s persecuted by her peers and slighted by her suburban family (which reveres her pretty little sister, a goody-two-shoes in a tutu), Solondz prolonged his heroine’s humiliations until I wanted to scream, “I GET IT ALREADY!” He was a maestro, all right, but of the sadistic kind, and the movie’s laughs didn’t leaven its punishingly untranscendent misery–they condensed it. This was the world as seen through glasses so thick they barely let in light.

Solondz’s new foray into misery, Happiness, lays it on even thicker. This time, however, he spreads the pain around, and he brings in sundry instruments to share in the playing of his lone theme. The upshot defies categorization. Happiness is an aching roundelay, a triumphantly benumbed ensemble farce that mingles condescension and compassion in a manner that’s disarmingly–and often upsettingly–original.

Before I go any further: You should know that I have collaborated with the co-producer of Happiness, Christine Vachon, on a new book called Shooting to Kill, which may be ordered by clicking here. (Just kidding. Wait a minute, I’m not kidding. Click here before you do anything else.) I was around for pre-production and made a few casting suggestions (politely ignored), went on a stupefyingly dull “tech scout” with the director and key crew, watched some scenes being shot, and got steady gossip from Christine that I can’t share with you although I might if you e-mail me proof that you’ve bought the book. I thought about recusing myself, but I have no direct financial ties to the picture and think it’s one of the most interesting of the year. Why should I deprive myself?

Happiness revolves around three sisters who live some distance from a large metropolis, but the relationship to Chekhov ends there. The place is suburban New Jersey. Sweet, tremulous Joy Jordan (Jane Adams), the youngest, has turned 30 and still lives in the house of her parents, Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara), who have a condo in Florida and are in the throes of a vexingly tentative separation. Middle sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is the author of arty, titillating short stories and a magnet for studs and weight lifters; she resides in a dim high-rise down the corridor from two unrelated fatties, Kristina (Camryn Manheim) and Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The latter, a compulsive obscene phone caller who longs for his sleek, chic neighbor, is the psychiatric patient of Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), who happens to be the husband of Helen’s older sister, chipper Trish (Cynthia Stevenson)–and also a pedophile who, in the course of the film, drugs little boys and has (off camera) sex with them.

Pedophilia, rape, murder, suicide, dismemberment, obscene talk: Happiness is about the sense of incompleteness that these seemingly disparate people carry inside them–and, more important, the ways in which their prodigious longings manifest themselves in their sexual predilections. And yet these kindred spirits almost never acknowledge a connection. Their similarities don’t mitigate their aloneness, and talking about their problems doesn’t help much, either. It’s no accident that Solondz’s pedophile protagonist is a shrink and that the characters who get things off their chests go ahead and act on them anyway. There’s no such thing as catharsis: Come once, you’ll want to come again and again and again.

The pre-title sequence sets the drolly excruciating tone. Joy has just told Andy (Jon Lovitz) that she thinks they should stop seeing each other. Solondz goes so tight on Lovitz’s ample flesh that he could sweat off the screen and onto your lap. But as his strangled monosyllables give way to lavish verbal abuse the shots go wider, so that we take in the romantic restaurant awash in fake plants and frippery–a setting that mocks this unhappy couple the way the movie’s very title hangs over it like a mushroom cloud. Solondz keeps Happiness right on the border between irony and empathy. The gags are often easy, but the characters are in an authentic hell. And there isn’t a trace of irony in the skinny, frazzled Adams, who’s as raw as a newly birthed gazelle. Some directors know how to exploit their actors’ vulnerabilities, and Solondz seems to have scraped off layers of his leading lady’s skin–it’s so translucent you can almost read her organs.

A t the other extreme, Hoffman, as one of the two fat neighbors, is encased in his flab like a tortured prisoner of war. His doleful low tones and operatic mouth-breathing give even his vilest lines a dopey sweetness. In fact, Solondz compels us to collude with even his most unsavory characters. Baker’s pedophile is so furtive that he’s almost immobile, but we register the darting eyes under the bland, Mr. Rodgers-like façade, and as he waits for a little boy to eat a drugged tuna sandwich, we hold our breaths the way we did in Psycho when Norman Bates watched the car with the body of Marian Crane almost not sink into the swamp. The only character whose pain we don’t feel is also the only “normal” one, Stevenson’s Trish–a sugary, passive-aggressive gargoyle who embodies everything that made some of us flee the suburbs for the urban jungle.

Not all of Happiness is as consistently inspired. The scenes of Joy at work (wanting to do good, she crosses a picket line to take a job teaching English as a second language) are coarsely conceived, and the parents, Mona and Lenny, don’t exist on the same level as the other characters. Boyle’s Helen is a thin dirty joke rescued only by a good punch line (and Boyle, who drops her voice to a husky whisper, looks wildly out of place in this clearly Jewish family). But some of the one-joke roles turn out to have more under the surface than is at first apparent. In one scene, fat Kristina tells Allen about a horrible deed she has committed and, while her listener attempts to process it, appalled, tucks into an ice cream sundae. That might have been the cheapest kind of fat gag, but because of the way it’s shot and acted, our responses don’t end with a snicker. We can see that Kristina is living a life of nightmarish deprivation, and getting the only kind of pleasure that she knows.

J ohn Waters once said that he would like to make a film that received an X or NC-17 rating with no foul language or genitalia–“it would just be so offensive to people’s values.”Happiness certainly has foul language, as well as a (brief) shot of Joy’s uncovered breasts, but what’s truly shocking is its unblinking gaze–hard and clinical but also nonjudgmental. Scenes in which Maplewood’s son (Rufus Read) asks his dad about masturbation come close to being healthy. But the context is too spooky, and the conversations creep into the red zone when the father offers to demonstrate his technique.

Solondz’s writing doesn’t cut very deep, but it does swing wide, smashing taboos on all sides–the film is the dark side of There’s Something About Mary. And in some ways, it couldn’t have had a more fitting launch. At the same time that the picture was winning an international critics’ prize at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was shown outside the main competition), Universal, the studio that financed it (through its recently acquired “indie” wing, October), unloaded it in a panic–largely because its new owners, the Bronfmans of Seagram, feared being associated with a movie that featured a pedophile. That the booze-peddling Bronfmans wanted nothing to do with a film that functions as the opposite of an intoxicant is the kind of irony with which Happiness teems.

October did choose to release The Celebration, a Danish dysfunctional family drama that treats matters of incest and perversion with a tad more taste. Children, siblings, nieces, and nephews all gather at a prosperous estate to celebrate the 60th birthday of its formidable patriarch (Henning Moritzen), who turns out to have had monstrous designs on two of his own children. You’ve seen this sort of picture before: People get drunk and drag skeletons out of closets, and the tension between the formal dinner party rituals and the truths that simmer beneath the surface give way to a Walpurgisnacht. The anti-patriarchal content is fairly routine, but you should see the movie anyway because the director, Thomas Vinterberg, is a great, hypersensitive filmmaker whose edgy, grainy, caught-on-the-fly camerawork seems to make the very celluloid shiver with rage.