USA 1998

Reviewed by Xan Brooks


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The New Jersey suburbs. Thirty-year-old Joy breaks up with her boyfriend Andy at a local restaurant. Overweight loner Allen tells his psychiatrist Bill of his lust for Helen, a successful poet who lives in Allen's apartment block. Unable to approach Helen directly, he plagues her with obscene phone calls. Helen has two sisters: the now-single Joy, and Trish, who is happily married to Bill the psychiatrist. The sisters' parents, Mona and Lenny, have retired to Florida and are separating.

Andy commits suicide and Joy quits her job. She takes a post filling in for striking teachers at a language school. This leads to a one-night stand with Vlad, a Russian cab driver who steals her stereo. Bill becomes obsessed with Johnny Grasso, an 11-year-old friend of his eldest son Billy. When Johnny stays the night, Bill drugs the child then molests him. Later Bill visits another schoolmate of Billy's (whom he knows is at home alone) and molests him too. Helen decides she needs to live more dangerously and invites her mystery caller to visit her home. Allen, in turn, is bothered by his neighbour Kristina who tells him she has killed the apartment block's porter and hidden his body parts in her freezer. Allen eventually calls at Helen's apartment but, disappointed, she sends him away. Bill is caught by the police and confesses his crimes to Billy. Kristina is also arrested. Joy, Trish and Helen visit their reunited parents in Florida. Billy masturbates and runs in to tell his family that he's had an orgasm for the first time.


The first scene in Happiness details a forlorn break-up in a New Jersey restaurant; the second a turgid therapy session where the analyst's mind wanders off to checklist his plans for the afternoon. Suburban life, it is implied, is drab, uniform and quietly despairing. But its semi-formal etiquette and chintz masks real runaway psychosis. We subsequently learn that, having finished his dinner, the dumped boyfriend goes home and kills himself. The man on the psychiatrist's couch makes dirty phone calls. The shrink himself is a child molester. Writer-director Todd Solondz (as with his earlier indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse) presents suburbia as a type of peripheral hell, a moral darkness on the edge of town where, in the words of Wallace Stevens, "the pure products of America go crazy."

All of which is nothing new. Contemporary film-makers - from Hal Hartley in the US to Alain Berliner (Ma vie en rose) in France and Mike Leigh in the UK - have found suburbia such a fertile creative territory that there's a danger it's become a kind of comic shorthand, a knee-jerk symbol for a certain strain of middle-class pretension and hypocrisy. Happiness certainly doesn't shirk from hitting these buttons, but it hits them with such bravery and abandon as to conjure up a landscape at once blandly familiar and almost surreal. A perpetual, at times unbearable tension - between normalcy and deviance, between comedy and tragedy - is the fuel driving Happiness. Sex (the getting of it, the mastering of it, the getting rid of it) is the currency for all its inhabitants. Its genial caricatures turn abruptly black as pitch.

At the heart of Solondz's intersecting train-wreck of lifelines sits psychiatrist Bill (an astonishing, no-safety-net performance from Dylan Baker), an outwardly upstanding suburban dad who masturbates to pre-teen magazines and romps off in dogged pursuit of his son's classmates. The portrayal of Bill is central to the success or otherwise of Happiness. On the one hand, Solondz has undeniable fun with the character. Bill's interactions with little Billy view like a paedophilic pastiche of the father-son chats in Leave It to Beaver; his attempts to dope the "girlish" Johnny Grasso are played as farce. Moreover, Solondz forces us to identify with this man. The dramatic medium favours his character: for all his faults, Bill is at least an active protagonist, a take-charge contrast to the insipid Joy who is dumped on by others, or the impotent Allen who can only release his desires by phone. Most crucially and problematically of all, the grim consequences of Bill's crimes are either lightly glossed over or omitted entirely.

By rights, such hurdles should be insurmountable. But Happiness conspires to get over them, and ultimately there is more to Solondz's film than shock tactics. It's undeniable that Happiness relies extensively on queasy comedy and the zap of the audience gross-out. Yet these extreme flights of fancy finally take on a quality that hoists it far above the level of the supermarket tabloid. Happiness stretches its taboo subject matter to the limits, using a freak-show explicitness to attain a rarefied altitude that other, supposedly 'brave' pictures (Adrian Lyne's Lolita, Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful) perhaps dream of but are finally too dramatically conservative, too compromised, too burdened by perceived audience reactions to reach. By the time Bill has his last painful conversation with Billy, Happiness has come to rest in a dreamscape where alienation dovetails into shocking recognition, where disgust and delighted laughter exist side by side. We wouldn't want to live in the place where Solondz takes us, but somehow, we suspect, we do.


Ted Hope
Christine Vachon
Todd Solondz
Director of Photography
Maryse Alberti
Alan Oxman
Production Designer
Thérèse Deprez
Music/Score Producer
Robbie Kondor
©October Films, Inc. and Livingston Pictures, Inc.
Production Companies
October Films presents
a Good Machine/Killer Films production
Executive Producers
David Linde
James Schamus
Line Producer
Pamela Koffler
Good Machine Production Executive
Ross Katz
Production Office Co-ordinators
Kimberly N. Fajen
Emily Samantha Sherman
Unit Production Managers
Eva Kolodner
Florida Unit:
Elayne Keratsis
Location Managers
T. Whelan
Florida Unit:
Fabio H. Arber
Locations Co-ordinator
Chloe Conroy
Post-production Supervisor
Ross Katz
2nd Unit Director
Alan Oxman
Assistant Directors
Jude Gorjanc
Cindy Craig
John G. Karliss
Ann Goulder
Additional Photography
Stephen Kazmierski
2nd Unit Photography
Storn Peterson
Special Effects
Drew Jiritano
Ethan Adelman
Anna Beckman
Dean Haspiel
Benjamin Harris
Matthew Herrick
Gary Leib
Phillip Ristaino
Jonathan Waks
Jim Ryan
Post-production Picture Services
Good Edit
Tim Streeto
Costume Designer
Kathryn Nixon
Wardrobe Supervisor
Pamela Kezal
Key Make-up Artist
Nicki Ledermann
Additional Hair/Make-up
Kerrie R. Plant
Hair Design
Gianna Sparacino
Robbie Kondor
Dave Spinozza
Ira Siegal
Sam Burtis
Danny Wilensky
Roger Squitero
Sandra Park
Mary Rowell
Sharon Yamada
Richard Locker
English Horn/Oboe:
Bob Magnuson
David Diggs
Pamela Sklar
Dominic Cortese
'Happiness' Band
Larry Saltzman
Michael Fumento
Michael Nordberg
Music Supervisor
Susan Jacobs
Music Production Co-ordinator
Bob Montero
Music Mixing Engineer
Matthew 'Boomer' La Monica
Music Recording Engineer
Victoria Gross
"Concerto for Guitar in D Major" by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Kazuhito Yamashita & the Chamber Orchestra Leos Janacek; "Happiness" by Eytan Mirsky, performed by (1) Jane Adams, (2) Michael Stipe with Rain Phoenix; "Requiem" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by St. Clement Concert Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Randall Swanson; "Piano Concerto" by Samuel Barber, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Schenck; "Mandy" by Richard Kerr, Scott English, performed by Barry Manilow; "You Light Up My Life" by Joe Brooks, performed by (1) Anatoly Aleshin, (2) Mantovani; "All Out of Love" by Graham Russell, Clive Davis, performed by Air Supply; "Eternal Lighthouse" by/performed by Vladimir Mozenkov, lyrics by Yevgeny Davidov
Sound Design
Damian Volpe
Jonah Lawrence
Production Sound Mixer
Neil Danziger
Additional Production Mixer
Dave Powers
Re-recording Mixer
Michael Barry
Supervising Sound Editor
Tom Efinger
Nicholas Montgomery
Russian Consultant
Zhenia Kozlov
Weather Report
Kent Ehrhardt
Helen's Poetry
Lee Chabowski
Denise J. Grillo - Off Stage Design
Dog Handler
Nakako Yamamoto
Jane Adams
Joy Jordan
Elizabeth Ashley
Diane Freed
Dylan Baker
Dr Bill Maplewood
Lara Flynn Boyle
Helen Jordan
Ben Gazzara
Lenny Jordan
Jared Harris
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Louise Lasser
Mona Jordan
Jon Lovitz
Andy Kornbluth
Camryn Manheim
Marla Maples
Ann Chambeau
Rufus Read
Billy Maplewood
Cynthia Stevenson
Trish Maplewood
Justin Elvin
Timmy Maplewood
Lila Glantzman-Leib
Chloe Maplewood
Kooki, the Maplewood's dog
Gerry Becker
Bill's psychiatrist
Arthur Nascarella
Detective Berman
Molly Shannon
Ann Harada
Doug McGrath
Dr Eric Marcus
courteous waiter
Eytan Mirsky
angry picketer
Lisa Louise Langford
radical picketer
Anne Bobby
Socorro Santiago
crying teacher
Allison Furman
consoling teacher
Wai Ching Ho
Bina Sharif
Tsepo Mokone
Dan Moran
Joe Grasso
Evan Silverberg
Johnny Grasso
Hope Pomerance
hysterical woman
Matt Malloy
Dan Tedlie
Marina Gaizidorskaia
Johann Carlo
Betty Grasso
Joe Lisi
police detective
José Rabelo
Diane Tyler
Olga Stepanova
Zhenia's mother
Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd
12,524 feet
139 minutes 9 seconds
Colour by
DuArt Film and Video
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011