Classic Review – Happiness (1998)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lara Flynn Boyle are both outstanding in Happiness

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lara Flynn Boyle are both outstanding in Happiness


Directed by Todd Solondz

Starring Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle

Review by Jordan

Forget Brazil, The Naked Lunch or Up the Sandbox (not hard considering no one’s seen it), the most misleading movie title of all time is without a doubt Happiness; belonging to American provocateur Todd Solondz’ outrageously heinous, undoubtedly humorous study of the neighbors and colleagues we believe to seek pleasure in the established places we do, but in fact uncontrollably veer elsewhere for fulfillment.

Some of these characters, laden with dark secrets or labelled with failure, may in fact fleetingly be happy, but watching the condescension, perversion, criminality and selfishness for over 2 hours, with a sucker-punch of an emotionally heavy, tragic scene towards the film’s end, ensures that despite the moments of blackly funny respite, the audience is not…

Does this make Happiness a bad film? Who knows… some movies don’t allow themselves to be critiqued and rated in an established fashion, but what is certain is that it’s a memorable one, featuring performances so astonishing (Lara Flynn Boyle and Dylan Baker especially) it’s truly an immense compliment to suggest the only thing better is the razor sharp, perfectly accurate script uttered from the distorted minds of these everyday Americans:

“I wake up happy, feeling good… but then I get very depressed, because I’m living in reality,” moans psychiatrist and pedophile Bill Maplewood (Baker) to his own psychiatrist, speaking of a recurring dream in which he strolls through a serene park at midday, observes everyone smiling enjoying each others company and then unloads a machine gun on them. “Dr. Maplewood” as his would-be victims refer to him stands a possibly one of cinema’s most inexplicably complex villains, a man we should loathe with every ounce of our being, and of course we do, but his honesty in the face of innocence is disarming and when compared with his reclusive, repulsive patient Allen (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), the front of an idealistic family life he conveys becomes a faux haven in this all-too-realistic world.

Dylan Baker in one of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed

Dylan Baker in one of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed

Unlike this review, Happiness does in fact have a defined structure of sorts, tracking a few days in the lives of 3 very different sisters living in New Jersey. Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) is a whimsical guitar player and call center worker, deemed lonely and hopeless by her siblings after a string of failed relationships, one of which leads her ex-boyfriend to commit suicide citing her as to blame and another acting out more like thief and victim, Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful poet who resides in New Jersey in order to be “living in a state of irony,” who when repulsed by the lack of authenticity in her abhorrent works requests to meet with the vile prank caller who is madly in love with her (Allen…) and Trish Maplewood (Cynthia Stevenson) is the “happily” married housewife of the good doctor… the parents of these three reflections of society, Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona (Louise Lasser), are splitting up after 40 years of marriage because Lenny has fallen out of love, and simply wishes to be alone. Nestled in this web of lives is also the bizarre murder of a doorman and the most unfortunate coming of age moment in history, which in retrospect really was the only way to end these proceedings.

It’s possible that in reading this you’re drawing comparisons with P.T. Anderson’s epic study of fractured lives Magnolia, but this would be a mistake. Magnolia is a film about hope, and the love of a few healing the hurt of many, and there is no hope in Happiness; it’s characters are too disturbed and neglected to even dream of it.

As Joy sings in a melancholic fashion alone on her bed:

“It seems the things I’ve wanted in my life I’ve never had. And so it’s no surprise that living only leaves me sad. Happiness, where are you? I’ve searched so long for you. Happiness, what are you? I haven’t got a clue. Happiness, why do you have to stay… so far away… from me?”


4 murdered doormen out of 5

(I guess… any movie that features Air Supply’s All out of Love is immediately deserving of at least 3)

12 responses to “Classic Review – Happiness (1998)

  1. I went through a period of obsession with Solondz, and Happiness affected me deeply. That Dylan Baker scene you mention was heartbreaking. Thanks for the review!

    • Glad you enjoyed it mate. Solondz is a director I can certainly respect for not shying away from taboo content, but this also means I can’t bring myself to watch more than one of his titles in a short space of time. Happiness was disturbing in an all-too human way.

      • I agree. Happiness is a film I still um and ah about watching, and any of his films, because though they’re mostly brilliant they’re excruicatingly painful.

  2. I’ve just watched this recently as well. Mainly because I’m a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he’s my absolute favourite actor) and I’ve been trying to catch up on his movies. Alas, I was unable to finish all of his works before his untimely death. I remember I was watching The Master just the night before the news of his death came in.
    I’m surprised you see a link between Happiness and Magnolia, both of which Philip Seymour Hoffman was in.
    Regarding Happiness, it featured several detailed character studies and paints an interesting portrait of suburban non-conformity. Everyone is seeking for happiness in the film but eventually, perhaps only the boy got it at the film’s end. Ironic but that’s the most important lesson you will learn in life; you don’t always get what you want.

      • Yeah I agree. He has worked with several critically acclaimed directors, it’s really more of their gain to have someone with such immense talent portray a character in their story. Even Sidney Lumet cast him in the last film he directed before his death. Whichever movie he is in, he would be able to improve it. Hence why losing him is such a huge loss to the world.

  3. great review! it’s fun to imagine how this film can scar the unsuspecting viewer. going against plot conventions, ‘Hapiness’ does seem like the dark side of ‘Magnolia’ or ‘Short cuts’, sarcastically showcasing the most disturbing moments in the lives of really repulsive characters.

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