When one goes to one of my movies…the characters are all flawed, and it is precisely those flaws that I find to be revelatory. If one is looking for a narcissistic experience, therefore, one will be very disappointed by my movies.– Todd Solondz on Palindromes
Todd Solondz is known for directing complex, often starkly cruel, but not entirely unsympathetic, films that draw praise for their ambivalence and ire for their relentless explorations of the darkest subjects. From his breakthrough second film, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning sensation Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), many critics labeled him a misanthrope and sensationalist, but these are easy labels for a director whose brand is to make viewers on all sides of issues uncomfortable.
Throughout his filmography, Solondz has cast his lens upon many of the hottest buttons of this century (racism, authenticity of experience, entitled and mediocre white men, aging, bullying, and abortion). The “Non-Fiction” portion of his 2001 film Storytelling seems particularly prescient now, with the protagonist’s sights set on stardom but with no discernible talent to achieve it.
This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Happiness, the follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse. In 1998, it was the must-see for art-house audiences, and it connected with them. Ticket sales earned back its budget and a little more, although hamstrung by its unrated status. The subject matter caused its original distributor, October Films, to drop the film out of fear of the controversy it raised, even though it won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival “For its bold tracking of controversial contemporary themes, richly-layered subtext, and remarkable fluidity of visual style.” It was released independently and without a rating rather than the NC-17 applied by the MPA.
Happiness is an ensemble piece that centers around three sisters: happy but oblivious Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), successful but miserable Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and directionless but optimistic Joy (Jane Adams). It introduces those in their orbit–Trish’s husband Bill (Dylan Baker) and children, their parents (1970s cinema heroes Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara), Joy’s students, and Helen’s neighbors, the awkward Allen and Kristina, played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Camryn Manheim.
The story has them all linked in some manner and united in their mostly unsuccessful quest for happiness. Trish is the only one who seems to have found it, but she is oblivious to the pain of the rest of the characters and even criticizes Joy for not trying hard enough to be happy. Helen treats Joy with condescension, too, vaguely referencing the famous people she is surrounded by.
A simplistic take would run through the outrageous moments in Happiness, but at its core, it’s about these characters pursuing their own version of happiness, whether we approve of their definition and methods of achieving it or not. The film’s poster features cartoon versions of the characters. If you look closely, Hoffman’s character is sweating and nervous. Joy looks stunned. No one looks happy despite the title. I distinctly remember one video store slapping a label on the box: “This is not a cartoon. It is for adults only.”
The opening scene establishes the tone and indicates that Solondz hasn’t lost any of his bite. Joy and Andy (Jon Lovitz) are on a date that turns sour when Joy uses the occasion to dump him. The two sit in an uncomfortable silence, and Solondz cuts to the title card. Later, we learn that Andy has killed himself. When his colleagues learn of his fate, they struggle to remember who he was.
Next, we hear syrupy sitcom music and meet the Maplewood family–patriarch Bill, sons Billy and Timmy, wife Trish, and baby sister Chloe. Trish lives her life in an oblivious bubble. She feigns outrage over minor slights at a PTA meeting and obliviously insults her sister, Joy. Solondz’ satirical sitcom tone is a savage takedown of the glut of family-focused, banal sitcoms of the decade, such as Family Matters, Step by Step, and Full House. As modern life has seemingly become more cartoonish via TikTok and YouTube, Happiness’ target has moved down the proverbial street but remains rife for satire.
Over the first act, we meet the rest of the main characters. The hapless, lonely Allen spends his evenings making sexual prank calls, but in therapy, his dull ramblings cause his therapist, Bill’s thoughts to drift over to a mental list of the week’s errands. Helen, the sister of Trish and Joy, is a fraud of a successful novelist who hates herself for capitalizing on fictional tragedies she passes off as her life. She lives across the hall from Allen, and neighbor Christina forms the third point of a lust triangle. Allen is too scared to talk to Joy, and Kristina tries in vain to get Allen to notice her.
As Happiness continues, we see Joy having an ill-fated affair with Vlad, one of her English as a second language students. On a trip to the grocery store, we learn that Bill is attracted to pubescent boys when he buys a teenybopper magazine for his perusal and gratification. He eventually rapes one of Billy’s friends, and the resulting conversation between Bill and Billy is among the most uncomfortable scenes committed to film.
Meanwhile, Allen struggles to connect with his work colleagues or anyone, really, and we see Helen take an interest in Allen’s awkwardness, but still, she rejects him. He decides to go on a date with Kristina, and after learning of her assault at the hands of their doorman and her subsequent murder of him, he responds, “We all have our pluses and our minuses.”
While some are fond of decrying that certain films “couldn’t be made today”, a 2023 version of Happiness would likely find a home on streaming or at a distributor like A24 Films. The challenge might be the film’s dark, satiric tone. Despite the rampant sexuality and bleak storylines in series such as Sam Levinson’s 2019 drama series Euphoria, all bad behavior in Happiness is portrayed appropriately somber and often incurs dire consequences.
Still, Solondz stages even the film’s most shocking and sad elements with a sitcom-adjacent score. He doesn’t let the audience off the hook by punishing all the characters’ bad behavior, nor does he make them “all good” or “all bad” for easy relating. Although the initial draft of the script had Bill committing suicide, it is unclear what happens to him by the end of Happiness other than some graffiti that “outs” him as a rapist and that Trish leaves him.
Solondz specializes in uncentered protagonists, a trope of ’90s-era American independent film, and he pushes that further by refusing to let his character become just a collection of quirks. Whereas other films with outsider protagonists define them by their otherness and design them to emphasize relatability or to generate a rooting interest from the audience, Solondz’s main characters don’t make all the right choices to gain audience empathy. Their prickliness is a feature, not a bug. He complicates them further by allowing them moments of unlikely grace or conflicting characteristics. Bill is a pedophile, for example, but he also shows some surprisingly nuanced and insightful, but still unsettling, concern for his oldest son.
Solondz has called his films “sad comedies”. No one in his films is purely heroic or villainous. We often feel for them, but it’s moment-to-moment. They can act awful toward themselves or others, and they all speak with a heightened honesty that sounds like cruelty and frequently radiates a lack of self-awareness. His characters are gray areas, monsters in small and huge ways. Even his most sympathetic characters, such as Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse, do contemptible things, and the monsters like Dylan Baker’s Bill Maplewood in Happiness, have unexpected shades.
While Solondz doesn’t seem like the type to do sequels or universe-building, he kills and resurrects Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener in Palindromes (2004) and Wiener Dog (2016) respectively. The Happiness characters return in 2009’s Life During Wartime, although in a surprising development, all the characters are played by a new set of actors. He cleverly nods to this through a poster on the wall of another famous Todd who made a provocative film about differing selves, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. Interestingly, Solondz chooses not to catch up with the victim of Bill’s crime or his father.
The characters are different people now in Life During Wartime – as we often profess when we think we have been transformed by life. However, as expected, they are all still striving for happiness that eludes them, and interestingly, the magic bullet through their collective discomfort is the unwillingness to acknowledge and deal with the trauma they experienced. This sets up Bill, who is released from prison as Life During Wartime begins and becomes one of the more well-adjusted characters. He has faced his demons and is ready to own them and move on. Here, Trish tells her kids their father is dead, but Billy seeks out Bill, and they meet up, although Bill only wants to make sure his namesake is not following in his predatory footsteps.
While Happiness ends with most of the family convened in Florida at their parents’ home toasting “to happiness” and ends with a comedic punchline, Life During Wartime ends with a provocative discussion of whether someone can forgive those who have done wrong, which evolves into a conversation about forgiving versus forgetting.
Many characters in Life During Wartime have tried to forget rather than forgive. They cut people out of their lives to avoid the pain of dealing with trauma. They try to hide the unsavory aspects of their histories to move on. The characters are left weary and recently rocked by news of a terrorist attack in Israel. Trying to determine whether to forgive or forget against the backdrop of violence is all too relatable, no matter the era of one’s story.