Ten Year Itch

By Gus Bode

Some people go to the movies to be entertained; others go to be challenged and to see the world in a way to which they would normally not be privy.

Todd Solondz’s 1998 film, “Happiness,” is a film that belongs to the latter category. The subject matter of the film is intensely adult and could have been exploited or made fun of, but “Happiness” is about how people on the fringes of society have the same wants and desires as the rest of us, although they struggle and usually fail to fulfill them.

Similar to “Crash” or “Magnolia,” the film tells a story about many different characters, all who are connected by a common thread. In this case, the characters are three New Jersey sisters who are living in generic movie suburbs and apartment buildings.


Joy (Jane Adams) has been rejected by her most recent boyfriend and teaches reading to immigrants. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful author whose lovers all find her mysterious but don’t love her for who she is. She lives next door to Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a depressed neighbor who makes obscene phone calls to strangers and manages to call both Joy and Helen during the course of the film. Finally, there is Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who is married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist who leads a secret life as a pedophile.

This barely covers the labyrinthine plot, and I haven’t even mentioned the sisters’ parents, who are in the midst of a divorce. You can see from the above information that the film deals with a variety of controversial issues, the most notable of which is the pedophiliac husband and father.

The beauty of Solondz’s film is that these are realistic and vivid characters, each with their own humanity and their own needs. Audience members will find themselves identifying with aspects of all of their personalities, and it’s a challenge to watch the film because these thoughts conflict with how we feel about these issues.

The performances are all top notch – most notably Baker’s as a loving and caring father who is consumed by his urges. He has scenes with his prepubescent son where they graphically discuss sexual practices, which are horrifying and heartbreaking to watch because we know the deeper meaning of their conversations.

The central theme of the film is that true happiness is a myth, and the people who think it is possible to achieve are disillusioned. Solondz has great respect and love for his characters, so the message is easier to take, but the gritty underbelly of suburbia is shown to be a place where people look for what they want and never find it because they are too emotionally stunted or their needs are not that of the mainstream.

“Happiness” was extremely controversial upon its release, and it was released unrated in a small amount of theaters, where it got both critical acclaim and violent protest. (Solondz struggled to get his movie made, and his next film, a companion piece to “Happiness,” did not get funding for almost a year and a half).

The people who protested the film and its depictions of these characters were probably unnerved at their identification with them, and though the film is disturbing, it doesn’t feature anything that would be out of place in an R-rated film, in terms of sex or violence. It is the power of the words that lead the film into rarely charted waters.


“Happiness” is a film that is not for most people, but for anyone who wants stimulating conversation to follow their film experiences, this is the perfect film. Watch it with an open mind and an open heart.

Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or [email protected].