Happiness (1998 film)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Happiness is a 1998 black comedy motion picture, written and directed by Todd Solondz, that shows the lives of three sisters and their families.

The film was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for "its bold tracking of controversial contemporary themes, richly-layered subtext, and remarkable fluidity of visual style," and the cast received the National Board of Review award for best ensemble performance.


Movie Plot

Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), the eldest sister, is a successful author who is adored and envied by everyone she knows, and can have any man she wants. Her charmed life leaves her ultimately unfulfilled, however; she despairs that no one wants her for herself, and that the praise regularly heaped upon her is undeserved. She is fascinated by a neighbor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who makes obscene phone calls to her apartment and tries to seek out a relationship with him. Meanwhile, the neighbor, Allen, sinks deeper into depression as Helen's sudden interest in him ruins his fantasies, and realizes that a woman who truly cares for him (Camryn Manheim) has been right under his nose all along.

Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), the middle sister, is an upper middle class housewife happily married to psychiatrist Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) and has three children. Unbeknownst to Trish, however, Bill is a child molestor. He develops an obsession for his 11-year-old son Billy (Rufus Read)'s classmate Johnny Grasso (Evan Silverberg). When Johnny comes for a sleepover, Maplewood drugs Johnny as well as all his own family and then sodomizes Johnny while he is unconscious. He also learns that another boy, Ronald Farber, is home alone while his parents are away in Europe. Under the guise of attending a PTA meeting, Maplewood goes to Farber's house and rapes him too.

After Johnny is taken to the hospital and found to have been abused, the police arrive at the Maplewood residence to talk about Johnny Grasso. After alerting his wife to the police presence, he begins by asking the two detectives "So you wanted to talk about Ronald Farber?" The two detectives, looking puzzled say nothing. Bill then stammers, "I mean, Johnny Grasso." Out on bail, he admits to his son that he is a child molester, that he raped two of Billy's friends, that he enjoyed it, and that he would do it again. When his son asks, "Would you ever do it to me?," Bill answers, "No. I'd jerk off instead."

Joy (Jane Adams), the youngest sister, is seen by her family as overly sensitive and lacking direction. She works in telephone sales, but leaves to do something more fulfilling: teaching at a refugee education center. Her students call her a scab, because their original teacher was striking, and she begins to feel empty in that job too. Joy is also constantly let down in her personal life. After a rejected suitor, Andy (Jon Lovitz) calls her shallow at the beginning of the film, Helen tries to set her up with other men. Expecting to hear from a suitor, she instead gets an obscene call from Allen. Later one of her Russian students, Vladimir (Jared Harris), offers her a ride in his taxi and they end up going inside together. He seduces her, and she seems to feel happy for the first time in the movie. In the coming days, however, Joy realizes Vlad was using her and that he may be married. After being attacked by his wife and lending him $1000, she is back to being alone.

Finally, the sisters' parents, Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara) are separating after 40 years of marriage. Lenny is bored with his marriage, but does not want to start another relationship; he simply "wants to be alone." As Mona copes with being single during her twilight years, Lenny tries to rekindle his enthusiasm for life by having an affair with a neighbor. It is no use, however, as Lenny eventually finds that he has lost the capacity for virtually any emotion. The only person who seems happy at the end is Billy, who throughout the movie attempts to make himself ejaculate and finally achieves it.


In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "...the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision(.) In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity."


The film was highly controversial for its heavy sexual themes, especially its portrayal of Bill, a pedophile and child rapist, as a three-dimensional human being with redeeming qualities. While the way in which the role was written was criticized, however, Baker was lauded for his performance.

Expecting that the MPAA would brand it with an NC-17 rating, which would make distribution difficult, the filmmakers opted not to submit the film for rating, hence sealing limited distribution and difficulty in advertising.

Poster Art

The poster art was done by comic book creator Daniel Clowes.

See also

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Happiness (1998 film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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