Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Lately rediscovered notes from 1999:

The distance between us: Philip Seymour Hoffman gets down and dirty with Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness.

Happy Now? Hardly

Every now and then, I watch the TV sitcom “Friends” with my 12-year-old daughter. If I’m lucky, the plot will be on the mild side of PG, and the antics of this group of beautiful young people will require from me no rejoinders, corrections, sighs of discomfort or fights for the remote. That usually isn’t the case -- the jokes are always about sleeping around, which I couldn’t care less about as an adult but which I tend to blanch at as a parent. Promiscuity on prime time TV has a way of looking hip, witty and wholesome. If there is a dark side to sex, the “Friends” have somehow failed to discover it -- there’s no despair, no anguish, no fear, and heaven knows no diseases. It’s just an endless source of cheery banter, fleshy goodwill and knowing laughs between pals. The child whose picture of love and relationships is shaped by this Disney version of it is in for a hard fall.

Would a young person be better served by watching Todd Solondtz’s Happiness? This is of course a non-issue, since I personally intend to put it out of my daughter’s reach until she is deep into her thirties, when she’ll be jaded enough to take it and “Friends” will be yesterday’s joke. But I question whether she’ll buy its premise then any more than her old man does now. This seamy semi-comedy from the director of Welcome to the Dollhouse is a virtual catalogue of middle-class sexual hang-ups, most of which seem inspired by the tabloids. It’s an anti-sitcom: the kind of deeply unfunny comedy where the laugh track is real, but the laughter sounds nervous and defensive, and eventually peters out altogether.

As you can guess from the title, it’s pretty depressing, not to mention cranky and puritanical. There are a fair number of orgasms in the movie, but not one cry of joy -- just weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It’s the kind of film a repressed nun might make to convince herself to stay safe within the walls of the convent.

The story generally centers on the multiple connections and disconnections of the Jordan family, which range from the banal to the bizarre. Starting from the top, there’s the dad, Lenny (Ben Gazzara) who wants to leave if not exactly divorce his wife of 40 years, Mona (Louise Lasser) for a fling with Diane (Elizabeth Ashley.) The couple’s three adult daughters have it a good deal worse, and are in varying stages of denial. First we meet Joy (Jane Adams II) who is of course joyless -- an aimless musician who is no better at picking men than she is day jobs. Then there’s Trish (Cynthia Stevenson, in an apparent self-parody of her trademark insufferable cutesiness) who prattles on forever about how she “has it all.” Being the happiest character she is also the most blind, unaware that her successful therapist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) would rather rape their eleven-year-old son’s friends than sleep with her. The boy, Billy (Rufus Read) has his own troubles -- he wants to be able to ejaculate like all the other kids, so naturally he turns to Dad for advice on length over girth, and the finer points of caressing one’s self. The successful sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) can have any man she wants, but the ease bores her -- she wants it raw and dirty, like the characters in her presumably best selling soft-porn novels. She finds the man of her dreams when she gets an obscene phone call from the guy down the hall, Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is excellent). Unfortunately, he can only relate physically to himself. No wonder he ultimately hooks up with his neighbor Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who like him is overweight, unattractive, and desperate for love. She also has a murderous hatred for sex. Perhaps the most tender moment in Happiness is when these two crawl in bed, and turn away from each other. Welcome to the new frontier: one-night stands where nothing happens.

There are several images from Happiness that linger in the head after you’ve seen it, most involving masturbation or semen. The vital fluid -- which seems to be asserting itself as a major presence in movies today, from The Doom Generation to There’s Something About Mary -- is splattered in at least a couple of scenes, talked about ad nauseum between Bill and Billy, and constantly siphoned by Allen . Semen is the film’s McGuffin -- the thing everyone wants, in one way or another: to receive it, to be released from it, to be free of it forever. And of course freedom is exactly what it doesn’t deliver. When Lenny comes too early, Diane tells him not to feel guilty. “I don’t,” he replies, “I don’t feel anything.” He isn’t alone, of course. The people in this movie are shell-shocked survivors of their own private desire.

Solondz’s picture of family life as this swarm of worms coated with oily bourgeois charm made its debut in Welcome to the Dollhouse, wherein poor 11-year-old Dawn Weiner underwent one adolescent disaster after another. There’s a natural sympathy between the director and the Dawns and Billys of the world, born into families which will bequeath them a burden of bullshit and despair.

Unfortunately, I never really bought the whole package. Watching Happiness you never get the feeling you’re seeing the grimy truth peeled back from the layers of suburbia, just the director’s own somewhat angry vision of it, and like any film bred in anger it comes across looking thin and hollow. The characters seem less like people than they do cardboard representations of modern-day anomie and ennui. And so much of the film just seems punishing to sit through -- partly because the ugliness is so unearned. I am thinking here particularly of an irredeemably nasty scene at the end between the Bill and Billy -- one of several moments when I found myself praying for projection failure. To begin with, it struck me as completely implausible, and because it’s implausible, because it seems a nightmare located entirely within the brain of the director and outside of reality, even the reality of the film, I felt needlessly assaulted --which I can only guess was the intent. There is nothing like a film that takes a hard, close look at the truth we would all like to avoid; there’s nothing worse than one that wants to, and fails.

Because Todd Solondz’s obsessions are neither persuasive nor searching, I wonder about his future. How many audiences will be willing, after this and Welcome to the Dollhouse, to join him on one more masochistic trip through Depravity Lane?
I, for one, think I’ll pass.

P.S. No, I didn’t bother to watch Storytelling.

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