50 years, 50 films: Happiness (1998)
Poignantly, Philip Seymour Hoffman gets his first mention (though not his last) in our travels through the previous half-century.
Poignantly, our trawl through the films of the last half century has — a week after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death — happened upon the point at which that actor really began to assert himself. Todd Solondz’s bizarre, scary, very funny Happiness was, of course, an ensemble piece: Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara, Jane Adams and Jared Harris were all excellent. But Hoffman still managed to stand out from the pack as an unhappy man who makes obscene phone calls to the woman across the hall. If Solondz has a “thing” it is a talent for making us care for apparently unlikable characters. Helped by a great actor on the rise, he certainly achieved that here. We sympathise without necessarily empathising.
What of the rest of the picture? Well, it has become customary, when assessing once-controversial films, to complain that “it’s hard to see what the fuss was about now”. But the core story in Happiness remains as troubling in 2014 as it was a decade and a half ago. The movie offers a compendium of stories attached, with varying degrees of tautness, to the Jordan family in Solondzian New Jersey (with Todd, Kevin Smith and the Sopranos, that state really did come to the fore during the millennial years). One sister lives miserably across the corridor from Hoffman’s character. Another flirts with a pretentious Russian immigrant. But the story that really kicked up trouble was that of Trish, the eldest Jordan sister, and her apparently charming husband Bill. Early on, we learn that Bill (played with disturbing sincerity by Dylan Baker) is a predatory pedophile. In the course of the picture, he drugs two of his son’s friends and rapes them. There is no sense of approval. But, equally, the film allows Bill to be a human being and not a monster. Bill’s confession to his son is among the most unsettling scenes in contemporary American cinema. Baker plays it with such enormous sadness that it requires an inner battle to avoid being moved.
Solondz will not, one assumes, be disturbed to hear that he comes across as a proper oddball. His first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, invited sympathy for a bullied girl who is never presented as any sort of charmer. For the first time, Solondz was inviting us to get past simplistic classical notions of the sympathetic protagonist. Let’s try and make a story about people who do good things, bad things and (most often) things in between. The experiment carried on with the tricky Storytelling and the hugely underrated Palindromes.
When I met Todd Solondz in 2001 — two days after 9/11 — he was characteristically evasive about his techniques. Either he really didn’t understand objections or he was very good at pretending he didn’t understand. Why would anybody judge fictional characters? (Because we always do.) He couldn’t see why folk found his films depressing. (Jesus, man. Even the lighting and furniture is grim.) He certainly wasn’t trying to shock anybody. (What? Not even with that scene in Storytelling that finds Selma Blair’s African-American lover urging her to say: “F**k me, n***er!”?) Was he serious? I think he was.
Whether Solondz admits it our not, part of his films’ disturbing appeal springs from their transgressive nature. They are, at times, like psychological horror films: one is scared by the sheer inappropriateness of what’s on screen. Happiness is probably still his best picture. It was followed over a decade later by a very interesting, but flawed, semi-sequel called Life During Wartime. Todd is still out there. Sleep uneasy in your beds.
For 1998 we also considered Festen, Testsuo, Rushmore, Pi, The Thin Red Line and Ringu.