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Happiness (1998, Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz)



In a New Jersey suburb, Joy (Jane Adams) breaks up with her dull boyfriend. Meanwhile, obese loser Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in session with his shrink, Bill (Dylan Baker), outlining his obsession with a neighbour, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), who he bombards with disturbing phone calls. He is unaware that their lives are already connected: Bill is married to Helen’s sister. Both women have to comfort their other sister Joy when her former boyfriend commits suicide, but it is Bill who appears to need therapy the most. Indulging his hitherto repressed sexual interest in children, he begins to molest the friends of his 11-year-old son.

Disgusted yet fascinated by the obscene calls, Helen eventually asks Allen to visit her flat, but he’s busy with a neighbour, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who claims she has murdered the building’s porter, and placed his dismembered remains in the freezer…

Todd Solondz’s dysfunction decathlon is a miraculous piece of cinema – uncomfortable, harrowing, hilarious and provocative. He took his starting point from Citizen X, a Russian who murdered over 50 children, but remained a devoted father. The character of Bill is therefore the anchor, brought to life with a calm logic and unforgettable menace, vindicating Solondz’s choice to pass over John Goodman and Gary Sinise in favour of the anonymous Baker.

Support casting is similarly flawless, with single scenes from Jon Lovitz and Marla Maples (the former Mrs Donald Trump) carrying the same power as Hoffman, Adams and Boyle’s more in-depth contributions.

The subject matter proved inevitably difficult for Universal Studios who – as they did with Brazil two decades previously – placed obstacles in the way of a supremely intelligent and challenging work. ‘There’s nothing taboo in this movie that you can’t see addressed or discussed in any tabloid or talk show any day of the week,’ countered the film-maker, but the producers were already forced to buy back the $3 million project, and re-sell it. They succeeded, and were rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination, a Cannes Film Festival award and a profitable first run.

production details
USA | 139 minutes | 1998

Writer and Director: Todd Solondz

Jane Adams as Joy Jordan
Jon Lovitz as Andy Kornbluth
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Allen
Dylan Baker as Bill Maplewood
Evan Silverberg as Johnny Grasso
Rufus Read as Billy Maplewood
Justin Elvin as Timmy Maplewood
Lara Flynn Boyle as Helen Jordan
Cynthia Stevenson as Trish Maplewood
Lila Glantzman-Leib as Chloe Maplewood
Gerry Becker as Psychiatrist
Louise Lasser as Mona Jordan
Ben Gazzara as Lenny Jordan
Camryn Manheim as Kristina
Arthur J. Nascarella as Detective Berman
Molly Shannon as Nancy
Jared Harris as Vlad
Ann Harada as Kay