• Audrey Walter

Happiness: Suburbia & Sexuality

A Character Study on Sex


Happiness is a 1998 film directed by Todd Solondz. On my search to find disturbing movies, I was brought to this strange gem. Many watchers have described it as hilarious, uncomfortable, and disturbing. I thought--perfect! A movie that will get under my skin and creep me out. Well, it may not have done that exactly, but one scene specifically made this movie live up to my expectations.

This film follows several characters and several storylines, often switching scenes abruptly. But all the characters are somehow connected, making those abrupt scene changes easy to digest and simple to follow.

While watching this movie, I noticed the pattern and main theme of the movie was sexuality. Each of the characters battles with some obsession or avoidance toward it. And it totally gets disturbing. Without explaining the whole movie, I’ll just provide examples of sexuality that take place in Happiness: pedophilia, marriage, first time, intimacy, perversion, rape, and using. It’s amazing to see all sides of sexuality in just one movie while maintaining a sense of humor throughout. I wouldn’t imagine a movie that contained a pedophile in it would have comedic scenes.

Happiness is a film that does not shy away from depravity. It doesn’t sugar coat any of the issues that the characters have. It’s raw and real, even if a bit uncomfortable for the viewer. It’s meant to be uncomfortable in some parts. But I have to say, there is a BIG difference between uncomfortable and awkward. The actors in this movie were phenomenal at personifying their characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a timid and boring man who is secretly a massive pervert when he’s alone. It was hard to see him as an actor rather than just the character himself!

While looking up spoiler-free reviews of this movie, I noticed a lot of comparisons to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. American Beauty is also bleak with a touch of humor to pull you through the movie. It deals with sexual depravity as well, following a father prey on his daughter’s underage friend. It also deals with a struggling gay man and a teen couple who are madly in love.

But I rate these two movies differently. For Happiness, the movie never leaves you bored. You want to know where the characters’ lives are going and what they will do next. In American Beauty, the characters’ fates feel obvious. The part that really was a wow-factor in that film was the amazing ending. I guess it all depends on your taste! I recommend both.

A creepy Dr. Maplewood (Dylan Baker) with his son.

Anyway, as I mentioned before, this film knew how to make certain parts funny while still keeping that uncomfortable feeling. In fact, there were comedians or actors who usually play funny roles sprinkled throughout the movie, such as Dylan Baker, Jon Lovitz, and Molly Shannon.

Dylan Baker did an amazing job as Dr. Bill Maplewood. Dr. Maplewood is a pedophile who usually gets off on children’s magazines until he gets a real-life opportunity with his son’s best friend. As disgusting as he is, he still provided humor. It just goes to show that awful people can disguise themselves as everyday people.

And this theme, disguise, comes up many other times in the film. Sexuality is often repressed or disguised, no matter if it’s bad or good. Allen Mellencamp (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is shy, timid, and even boring. Yet at home, he calls women from the phone book just to hear them speak. That’s all he needs to get him going. No one in the outside world knows how much of a pervert Allen is.

Kristina, Allen’s neighbor, is similar in the way of disguise. Although she is sweet and naive, she actually killed the doorman of their apartment. Not for no reason, though. The doorman raped her, so she murdered him and disposed of his body. She tells Allen that she found sex repulsive even before her assault. Kristina’s sexuality is a lack thereof, yet was intruded on by the doorman.

Throughout these stories, you feel a sense of bleakness. Yet it’s still very intriguing. The droll conversations only give the characters more humanness. It’s quite funny how lifelike the movie can be in that sense. Sometimes bleakness can be boring and I’m sure some viewers of this movie won’t care for it. But I thought that dreariness added an interesting layer to an already interesting movie.

Joy (Jane Adams) looking...well, not happy.

And to add to that bleakness in an opposing way, happy music was always in the background. It makes you feel like you’re having a bad day but everyone around you seems to be happy. It’s particularly loathsome seeing everyone do something you haven’t yet. I would also compare it to living in a rich suburban home, yet on the inside, everyone has their own issues. Perfect on the outside, but breaking apart on the inside.

Happiness is a great character study film about sexuality. It’s everything I expected it to be: bleak, awkward, funny, and disturbing all in one. I would recommend this movie just so everyone can watch Dr. Maplewood’s scenes. In my opinion, he has the best story, even though it’s not easy to watch. If you like something with an obvious plot and an ending resolution, then skip this. But if you want something thought-provoking and real, watch this!

I give Happiness an 8/10.


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