Sins of the flesh

Movie: Happiness

Our Rating: 4.00

If you're easily disturbed, stay far away from "Happiness," the most bracing jolt of firewater any filmmaker has ever asked his audience to swallow. Director Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse") overturns the rock of middle-class New Jersey life to expose the psychological horrors crawling beneath it.

Under Solondz's microscope are a trio of sisters whose lifestyles encompass a litany of sexual and emotional dysfunctions. Author Helen's (Lara Flynn Boyle) disaffected demeanor hides an artistic insecurity that her promiscuity can't cure, but her ice-queen posing makes her an irresistible target for neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose carnal outlet is a series of obscene phone calls. Meanwhile, younger sister Joy (Jane Adams) suffers through one dating nightmare after another, determined to play nice even if it means avoiding any healthy boundaries whatsoever.

After each failure, Joy retreats to the kitchen of Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), an outwardly satisfied homemaker whose emphasis on picket-fence values distracts her from the knowledge that her sex life with husband Bill (Dylan Baker) has shriveled away. The reason? Therapist Bill is so obsessed by his own pedophilic fantasies that he's begun to act them out on their son's visiting playmates.

Solondz works numerous side-splitting gags into this tableau of skin-crawling sickness, but distinguishing the laughs from the chills is not easy. One scene that may be intended as pure comic relief falls flat: A rape-and-retribution subplot starring Allen's elephantine, equally inhibited neighbor is an unsuccessful stab at black comedy that only Flannery O'Connor could have pulled off.

But "Happiness" earns its stripes as a landmark of shock-theater genius. From the first scene, in which a jilted beau (Jon Lovitz) tears into Joy with all of the defensive recrimination he can muster, it's clear that Solondz won't settle for less than total honesty. "Remember," the boyfriend hisses. "You're shit. Not me."

Mainstream critics will dismiss this film as pointless sensationalism for a voyeuristic generation. They'll be missing its subtle but powerful message: Our benchmarks of "civilization" -- two-car garages, fad diets, peewee baseball leagues and so forth -- cause us to suppress our natural, primal urges until they become dangerous. In his refusal to grant us an identifiable cast of heroes and villains, Solondz dares to suggest that we're all just points on the curve of a cultural mind-warp.


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