Happiness (1998 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Theatrical release poster by Daniel Clowes
Directed byTodd Solondz
Written byTodd Solondz
Produced byDavid Linde
James Schamus
CinematographyMaryse Alberti
Edited byAlan Oxman
Music byRobbie Kondor
Distributed byGood Machine Releasing
Release date
  • October 16, 1998 (1998-10-16)
Running time
139 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.2 million [2]
Box office$5.7 million[3]

Happiness is a 1998 American black comedy-drama film written and directed by Todd Solondz, that portrays the lives of three sisters, their families, and those around them. The film was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for "its bold tracking of controversial contemporary themes, richly-layered subtext, and remarkable fluidity of visual style," and the cast received the National Board of Review award for best ensemble performance.[4]

The film spawned the pseudosequel Life During Wartime, which premiered at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.


Trish Maplewood (Cynthia Stevenson), the eldest Jordan sister, is an upper middle class housewife married to psychiatrist Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) and has three children. She appears to have the perfect marriage, but she is unaware of Bill's secret life: he is a pedophile who is obsessed with 11-year-old Johnny Grasso, a classmate of their son, Billy (Rufus Read). When Johnny comes to the Jordan house for a sleepover, Bill drugs and rapes him. Later, Bill learns that another boy, Ronald Farber, is home alone while his parents are away in Europe. Under the guise of attending a PTA meeting, Bill drives to the boy's house and rapes him, as well. After Johnny is taken to the hospital and found to have been sexually abused, the police arrive at the Maplewood residence to question Bill. After alerting his wife to the police presence, Bill begins by asking the two detectives, "You said something about Ronald Farber?" The two detectives, looking puzzled, say nothing. Bill then stammers, "I mean, Johnny Grasso." Out on bail, he tearfully admits to Billy that he "fucked" the boys, that he enjoyed it, and that he would do it again. When Billy asks, "Would you ever fuck me?", his father replies, "No... I'd jerk off, instead."

Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), the middle sister, is a successful author who is adored and envied by everyone she knows, and can have any man she wants. Her charmed life leaves her ultimately unfulfilled, however. She despairs that no one wants her for herself, and that the praise regularly heaped upon her is undeserved. She is fascinated by an unknown man who makes obscene phone calls to her apartment and tries to seek out a relationship with him. She is disappointed, though, when she finds out the man is her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to whom she is not attracted. Allen, who is coincidentally one of Bill's patients, sinks into depression as Helen's rejection ruins his fantasies, and he realizes that a woman who truly cares for him, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), has been right under his nose all along, but she had recently killed the apartment doorman after he raped her. While Allen is still content with her friendship after she confided this in him, Helen reveals that the genitals of the doorman were discovered by police less than six months later in Kristina's freezer.

Joy (Jane Adams), the youngest sister, is overly sensitive and lacking direction. She works in telephone sales, but leaves to do something more fulfilling - teaching at an immigrant-education center. Her students call her a scab because their original teacher was striking, and she begins to feel empty in that job, too. Joy is also constantly let down in her personal life. After a rejected suitor, Andy (Jon Lovitz), calls Joy shallow at the beginning of the film and then goes on to kill himself, Helen tries to set her up with other men. Expecting to hear from a suitor, she instead gets an obscene call from Allen. Later, one of her Russian students, Vlad (Jared Harris), offers her a ride in his taxi, and they end up having sex. She is initially smitten, but she soon realizes Vlad was using her and that he may be married. After being attacked by his wife and lending him $500 in return for the guitar and stereo he stole from her, she is back to being alone.

Finally, the sisters' parents, Mona and Lenny, are separating after 40 years of marriage, but will not get divorced. Lenny (Ben Gazzara) is bored with his marriage, but does not want to start another relationship; he simply "wants to be alone." As Mona (Louise Lasser) copes with being single during her twilight years, Lenny tries to rekindle his enthusiasm for life by having an affair with a neighbor. It is no use, however, as Lenny eventually finds that he has become incapable of feeling. The only person who seems happy at the end is Billy, who throughout the film attempts to make himself ejaculate and finally succeeds after masturbating to a sunbather in a bikini.




The film was highly controversial for its heavy sexual themes, particularly its portrayal of pedophilia. The Sundance Film Festival refused to accept the film, alleging it to be too disagreeable.[5] October Films was the initial distributor for the film, and even helped finance it. However, October Films' owner Seagram refused to release the movie and dropped it from the company. Good Machine ended up releasing the movie on their own, creating a new distribution arm in the process.[6]


Due to adult themes, Happiness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and that caused the film to be limited in distribution; the film also had difficulty in advertising. For that reason, Happiness surrendered its NC-17 rating and was instead released unrated.[7]


Critical reception[edit]

Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars, and rated it number five in his top 10 films of 1998. In his review, he wrote: "...the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision... In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.... It is not a film for most people. It is certainly for adults only. But it shows Todd Solondz as a filmmaker who deserves attention, who hears the unhappiness in the air and seeks its sources."[8]

In a letter written to playwright Robert Patrick, Quentin Crisp stated , "[Happiness] mistook pleasure for happiness and was quite absurd".[9] In his review in Time Out New York, Andrew Johnston observed, "As repulsive as some of the characters are, Solondz makes most of them deeply sympathetic. And every scene works on several levels at once: The film's most hilarious moments all have poignant undercurrents, while the saddest--and most disturbing--are frequently sidesplitting at the same time."[10]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an 81% approval rating based on 48 critic reviews, with an average rating of 7.82/10. The site's critical consensus states, "Happiness is far from a cheerful viewing experience, but its grimly humorous script and fearless performances produce a perversely moving search for humanity within everyday depravity."[11] On Metacritic, the film holds a rating of 81 out of 100 based on 30 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[12]



Robbie Kondor wrote the film's score. Solondz had originally approached Michael Nyman to work on the soundtrack, but ended up discarding the material Nyman composed.

Eytan Mirsky wrote the title track "Happiness". Actress Jane Adams sings it in a scene in the film; Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix sing it over the credits.

The following music is played in the film:


  1. ^ "HAPPINESS (18)". British Board of Film Classification. October 27, 1998. Retrieved May 29, 2013.
  2. ^ Peter Biskind (2004). Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. Simon and Schuster. pp. 298–299. ISBN 978-0-684-86259-0.
  3. ^ [1]. The Numbers.
  4. ^ "Happiness – Awards". IMDb. Amazon.com. Retrieved February 6, 2014.
  5. ^ "Happiness di Todd Solondz: quando la felicità è una chimera…". Published at Cinema 10.
  6. ^ Kaufman, Anthony (February 21, 2011). "From the iW Vaults | A Look Back at the October Films / "Happiness" Debacle". IndieWire. Retrieved April 7, 2019.
  7. ^ "Happiness". Business Insider. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 23, 1998). "Happiness review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved September 10, 2008 – via rogerebert.com.
  9. ^ Patrick, Robert (ed.), Letters from Quentin Crisp, New York City: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, The Billy Rose Theater Collection
  10. ^ Johnston, Andrew (October 8, 1998). "Happiness". Time Out New York: 91.
  11. ^ Happiness at Rotten Tomatoes
  12. ^ Happiness at Metacritic

External links[edit]