I was amused and shocked by Todd Solondz's Happiness, though not necessarily in that order. A comedy so dark and dry that it might as well be taking place on the far side of the moon, Happiness is less about the human condition than about the inhuman condition--the horrible things we do to one another in our groping after intimacy. "Only connect," E.M. Forster famously wrote. The characters in Happiness--so needy and naughty they make the folks in Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors look like the Mickey Mouse Club--only disconnect, but not before shouting obscenities into the phone line. In all my years of sitting in the dark, I've not seen a film that had less hope for what our Declaration of Independence naively calls "the pursuit of happiness." Meet Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a dumpy-frumpy data processor who breathes through his mouth, especially when making obscene phone calls to women he otherwise can't look in the eye. And meet Bill (Dylan Baker), Allen's therapist, who's a wonderful father except for the fact that he keeps raping his 11-year-old son's schoolmates. Bill's married to Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who, along with her sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), loves to lord her have-it-all life over their other sister, the misnamed Joy (Jane Adams). Meanwhile, the sisters' parents (Ben Gazarra and Louise Lasser) recite their lines in the Beckett play they call their marriage. Linked in a daisy chain of pain, the characters in Happiness appear headed toward mass suicide.
Or mass homicide. According to my calculations, the movie includes two murders, three rapes and two cum shots--one of the latter an 11-year-old child's first orgasm. Now, I'm not exactly a prude when it comes to cinematic representations of such things, but the tone Solondz adopts for Happiness--TV-drama deadpan, complete with TV-drama music tying the scenes together--would make Larry Flynt squirm. And the movie's one-shot, two-shot camera technique succeeds in dampening whatever enthusiasm we might have for anybody. Victims, victimizers--they all get the same flat treatment, a stare that turns into a sneer. As he does to his characters, Solondz first raises our expectations, then lowers them, then stomps all over them.