The Dark Side of Cinema: Happiness

An awkward moment in Todd Solondz's powerful film

The Dark Side of Cinema: Episode Two: Happiness

In 1995, influential filmmaker Todd Solondz released a feature film called Welcome to the Dollhouse, which dealt with childhood issues, bullying and teenage angst. His follow-up film released 1998, the subject of this article, was a more adult film and dealt with the akwardness and sexual frustration of various characters including a compulsive masturbator, an obese woman with homicidal tendencies, a young boy with a determination to ejaculate and his paedophile father, among various other equally troubled characters.

Sex is a difficult subject to portray with realism in movies, and although we never see any characters having actual sex (unless masturbation counts), we can feel and empathise with their sexual dilemmas and difficulties, even if they are completely repulsive.

The film opens with the lonely and generally disliked Joy Jordan, on a date with a pudgy, disturbed young man (a very funny Jon Lovitz). She is trying painfully to break up with him. He shows her a very valuable item, and then tells her that it is for the girl that loves him, storming off in disgrace. From this point on, we are introduced to an assortment of characters who all eventually have some sort of relation. Joy has two sisters, Trish and Helen. Trish is married to Bill, a successful and seemingly content man who is breaking up on the inside and prefers to vent his sexual frustration by masturbating to children’s magazines and, at one point, actually raping a drugged child (thankfully, we do not see this happen). Bill’s son is also sexually frustrated. He learns from his father in disturbing scenes all about sex and masturbation, and decides to give the latter a go. Joy’s other sister Helen is a depressed writer who enjoys phone sex sessions with Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a disturbed and confused man who unknowingly lives next door to her. Hoffman is later rejected by Helen and goes out on a date with Kristina, another neighbour, only to discover her terrible secret.

You may be disturbed from what I’ve just told you, and if it’s seriously affected you, I don’t recommend you watch the movie. However, despite its disturbing and unflinching subject matter, it is an important film. The director, Solondz, has a knowledge of what he is saying and doing and manages to intelligently create a puzzle that will leave you contemplating your own happiness and that of people all around you. Is anyone ever really happy? It would be a lie to say yes. Even in our own fortunate moments of contentment, there is always darkness looming around the corner. Not that I’m a pessimist, or encourage pessimism, but I’m just saying that often times we ignore our frustrations and let them build up. Eventually the build up is expelled and we return to normal, but there are people who are truly unhappy, who resort to the measures depicted in this film, and will truly understand and sympathise with the characters’ problems. Solondz knows all about this. I don’t know if it stems from an unhappy childhood or unhappy life, or perhaps just from observations he’s picked up throughout his lifetime. All of his pictures that I can think of, which also include Welcome to the Dollhouse and the excellent Palindromes, depict characters with some sort of unhappiness, and often unhappiness is much more interesting and worthy of discussion than happiness itself.

What I’m ultimately saying, is that Solondz knows what he’s doing. He has an intelligence and knows how to tell the viewer what, deep down, our emotions really are. Not everyone is as unhappy as Joy, Trish, Helen, Bill, Allen and etc, but that doesn’t mean we all can’t benefit from the lessons and morals Solondz is trying to teach us.

My Rating: 8/10

Thanks for reading.


About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on March 24, 2011, in Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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