Awkwardly funny for some but definitively uncomfortable viewing for most, Todd Solondz’s 1998 Happiness – this haunting Freudian movie – deals with difficult subjects such as masturbation and paedophilia by cracking open American suburban angst in a non-judgemental way.
The themes explored in Solondz’s Happiness are so extremely hard to swallow that these might distract viewers from an obvious thread permeating the entire movie: those seeking happiness will forget about living and thus end up miserable. All the main characters in the film seem to be going through emotional rollercoasters; all of them, deeply unhappy, even the ones faking some sort of normality. It is inevitable that at the core of these characters’ problems sits your typical family, for as Philip Larkin knew well, ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad.’
The story revolves around three adult sisters who live very different lives in New Jersey and New York. The youngest of these, the shy Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) breaks up with her boyfriend Andy (Jon Lovitz) as he goes on a tirade of humiliation towards the young woman. Then, single man Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells his psychoanalyst Bill Mapplewood (Dylan Baker) how boring he feels he is. As he is unable to confess to his neighbour Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) – the middle sister – how attractive he thinks she is, Allen then goes home and masturbates over phone calls he makes to strangers. In turn, Bill Mapplewood describes to his psychoanalyst a recurrent murderous dream he has before masturbating in his car to a teen magazine. Bill is married to the eldest of the sisters, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who is obviously oblivious of her husband’s paedophilia.
Their eldest son, Billy (Rufus Read) confesses to his father his inability to ejaculate. Down in Florida, the sisters’ parents Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona Jordan (Louise Lasser) are very unhappy and on the verge of a divorce. Later on, Allen gets embroiled in a case of murder, as the narcissistic and attractive Helen gets involved with him. Joy, unhappy at work, decides to teach English to immigrants, has an affair with a Russian guy and gets robbed by him. One night, when Billy’s friend Johnny is having a sleepover, Mapplewood drugs his sandwich and sodomizes the boy. As the boy’s father threatens him over the phone, the police shows up at their house. Released on bail, Mapplewood admits to his son to having raped his friend before confessing his sexual attraction for young boys, his son included. At the end, in Florida, in his grandparents’ apartment, Billy finally ejaculates after masturbating to a topless girl.
..Awkward Naiveté or Refreshingly Cruel Sincerity?
Happiness is a highly subversive film for reasons other than its dealing with difficult subject matters. Its critical stance towards a typical false sense of suburban composure and tranquility and its capacity to induce laugh-out-loud moments out of sad circumstances and tragic undertones makes for a very naughty movie. When sensible and caring adults – the film’s supposedly target audience – find themselves laughing so hard about the naiveté, sadness, narcissism, perversion, cruelty and arrogance of their peers, then there’s certainly something wrong with them. Or is it that the flaws these people display are potentially ours too, therefore making us uncomfortable? If they are distorted images of ourselves, we will laugh to exorcise the pain. After all, isn’t fear of corrupting our children’s lives the main reason most of us flee to the suburbs?
But we all know that wherever we go we take ourselves with us – we can’t hide from our souls. And this is exactly where this movie is brave and well-intentioned. In showing these seemly normal people in such unflattering light, Solondz confronts us with demons that are surely recognisable by ourselves – the enemy is still within. This is not to suggest that we’re all potential murderers, paedophiles or sexual deviants, but only to warn us about the pretence and complacency that our fear makes us feel. The fear of the other, of the foreign,… the great fear of the poor, the homeless… Moving away from all these elements within society does not make them disappear, in the same way that pretending to be happy, faking smiles and telling tall tales do not hide our angst and dissatisfaction from ourselves.
The great paradox of the spreading of psychoanalysis over the last century is that we all now use it unconsciously (Oh the irony!) to attain a state of happiness, instead of trying to grasp with our eventual mental struggles. That’s satisfaction over peace of mind. Though it seems reasonable to use Freud’s or Jung’s or Fromm’s great insights to reach our goals in life, one would benefit immensely to learn of such ideas from a philosophical perspective. Only then, one might be able to reach some form of contentment. Thus, it might be said that those self-help authors, who dilute complex concepts into sometimes shallow ideas, only want to reach their goal of selling books; and happiness should be a by-product of life and not its main goal, especially when the pursuit of such goal end up creating so much misery.
By the end of the film, all of these characters’ lives are quite different; they have all deepen their knowledge; they have all gained valuable experiences. And yet they have all remained as miserable as before. In Life During Wartime, Solondz’s 2009 quasi-sequel to the first film, some of them reach another euphoric stage in their life, before succumbing once again to a greater level of misery. The thread that carries on through the second movie till the very end is the use of deception and delusion as psychic mechanisms of self-preservation. Perhaps this is for the best. Nobody should face their demons unprotected. Their angst, which is ours too, seems more encompassing than ever before.
Such end-of-the-millennium dread gave birth to a trilogy of suburban masterpieces. Together with The Ice Storm (1997, Ang Lee) and American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes), Happiness graphically deconstructs an once-untouched icon of Americana: the peaceful existence of the middle classes behind those white picked fences.