Though Happiness opens with a series of scenes that, while funny and effective, suggest it will indulge in the sneering, obvious irony that weakened director Todd Solondz's 1996 breakthrough Welcome To The Dollhouse, it doesn't take long for the film to reveal itself as something better. Solondz's third film features situations pretty far from blissful, contains one character named Joy who lives without joy, and many scenes in which upbeat music underscores terrible happenings. If all this seems a tad too obvious, it should, but it doesn't stay that way. "I am living in a state of irony," successful poet Lara Flynn Boyle declares when questioned about her decision to live in less-than-fashionable New Jersey, and the fact that we're meant to laugh at her pretensions, however true the statement itself, says much of Solondz's awareness of what he's doing. The film concerns the lives of several related New Jersey residents in addition to Boyle, including a sexually frustrated professional (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pedophile psychologist (Dylan Baker), his blissfully delusional wife (Cynthia Stevenson), their 11-year-old son (Rufus Read) who's concerned with his inability to ejaculate, an unhappy older couple (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser), and others. Thoroughly realized characters and relationships and Solondz's masterful ability to switch the tone from comic to tragic within the same scene help make Happiness a better film than it might have been otherwise. Much better, in fact. A collection of thwarted desires and shattered expectations, Happiness makes punchlines out of misery, pedophilia, and bodily fluids, but then carries on, arriving at a touching and tragic vision of humanity that's more difficult to forget than any of the film's much-talked-about gross-out humor. Rather than making cuts needed to obtain an R rating, Happiness' production company decided to distribute the film in its original form. This makes it more difficult to find for many people, but it's worth seeking out.
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