CV admits from the start: we hated Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz’ 1995 film, which we found to be unfunny and mean spirited. Fortunately, our good friend Tessi Tura urged us to try a little Happiness and who could refuse such a suggestion?

Happiness, of course, is about precisely the opposite. This is a film about a complexly related group of characters – a family of three sisters, one married with a family of her own, their parents, and other people who come into their lives. Each and every character we meet is emotionally needy, looking for love or recognition or success or all of the above, generally in highly dysfunctional ways, and uniformly failing to find it. A panoply of very sick behaviors is paraded before us, including, but not limited to, rape, child abuse, compulsive masturbation, wife beating, dirty phone calls, murder, and castration. This is one very unhappy bunch of folks. Unrequited love has seldom been so vividly expressed.

Is it funny? Yes, indeed. We are talking humor here in a shade of black that a raven would envy. There are plenty of easy giggles ("I like living in New Jersey; living in New Jersey is living in a state of irony."), but it is the sad funniness that is at the core of Happiness and makes it powerful, because, as in all comedy, it is drawing on all our weaknesses, touching on all too many universally familiar feelings of inadequacy or inferiority or impotence. Who has not been there at one time or another? Solondz takes this all to extremes, maybe a necessary ploy to grab the attention of today’s audience. Three hundred years ago Jonathan Swift used the same strategy.

If CV has one complaint, it is that Solondz has tried to cover too much territory here, as if he was afraid to miss a single permutation of modern miseries. A little less might have been a lot more, as the film stretches out to better than two hours.

Recommended, but not for all tastes.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco ,
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.