“You know, people are always putting New Jersey down. None of my friends can believe I live here. But that’s because they don’t get it: I’m living in a state of irony.”
So says Helen, one of three unhappy New Jersey sisters in Todd Solondz’s controversial 1998 film, “Happiness.” Helen is an arrogant, chain-smoking novelist played by Lara Flynn Boyle with the perfect amount of conceit and ennui. The oldest sister is Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a chirpy, all-American soccer mom whose mindlessly cozy existence remains so only as long as her husband’s pedophilia and dreams of going on a psychopathic killing spree are kept in the closet.
And then there’s Joy, the film’s sweet-natured, do-gooder protagonist. At 30 years old, Joy (Jane Adams) quits her call center job to become a teacher at an English-language school for immigrants. She still lives at her parents’ house, naively dreams of achieving success with her mediocre musical talent, and has a profound lack of success in the dating department. Dylan Baker plays Trish’s therapist/therapy-needing husband, Bill, Jon Lovitz is Joy’s suicidal ex-boyfriend, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Helen’s neighbor with bizarre sexual fetishes.
“Happiness” is a comedy, but one full of sadness and a highly provocative and daring level of vulgarity. The film won the International Critics’ FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, but was rejected from the Sundance Film Festival for being too “disagreeable.” You either love or hate the movie, depending on how closely your sense of humor relates to that of its writer and director, Todd Solondz.
In Roger Ebert’s four-star review of the movie, he captures what is at the heart of “Happiness”: “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.”
Solondz captures the ordinariness of suburban New Jersey life, and the masked dysfunction and unhappiness that so many other filmmakers tend to ignore – or have trouble capturing as honestly and amusingly as Solondz has. He was born in Newark and grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, which serve as the setting for virtually all of his films. He first achieved success with his 1995 film “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” the offbeat portrait of an unpopular suburban 7th grader named Dawn Weiner. His latest film, “Dark Horse,” is about a thirty-something, hobbyist toy collector who lives in New Jersey with his parents.
His vision is warped to say the least, but his cast of loners, deviants, and discontents all strive for the same goal: human connection and acceptance. The absurdity of it all is that human connection is not quite as tidy or innocent as one would like to believe. In the film, when Joy breaks up with Jon Lovitz’s schlubby nice-guy character, he guesses it’s because of his appearance. His response:
“You think I don’t appreciate art? You think I don’t understand fashion? You think I’m not hip? You think I’m pathetic? A nerd? A lard-ass fat-so? You think I’m shit? Well, you’re wrong, ’cause I’m champagne, and you’re shit. Until the day you die, you, not me, will always be shit.”
Those kind of harsh exchanges permeate the film, and reveal Solondz’s fearlessness of taking dark and taboo subjects and turning them into pure comedy. His intention isn’t to poke fun at characters like this, but to highlight the underlying abnormality and dissatisfaction many of us experience in our lives and in our pursuit of happiness.
In a 2005 interview with The Believer, Solondz describes moving from New Jersey to Manhattan:
“When I was young and growing up in the suburbs, where there was nothing to excite me, no real culture or stimulation, no real adventure, I thought all the time about how one day I’d move here and my life would be like this. I’d live and work in Manhattan, and there’d always be something happening. And in the end, for me, it’s not so much about the theatre and the museums and galleries and so on. It’s about the streets, and the life of the streets, and the endless parade of different kinds of people, and how you can never get enough of it. It’s always there and you never grow tired of it, just going out and walking or sitting and watching it all. But how many times in life does it actually happen, that you dream that something will be magical, and it turns out to be just so?”
Earlier in the same interview, Solondz describes New York City’s massive, bird-sized roaches, and the one that flew into his eighth-floor apartment that same day. His interviewer says she found one of the roaches in her own apartment under her bed, but being too afraid to kill it, took two sleeping pills instead and ignored its existence.
Despite moving out of the Garden State, Solondz remains fixated on the disturbing placidness of suburban life, and the mysteries that remain hidden behind unassuming facades – like Helen’s blank face, or Bill’s professional demeanor and immaculate white home. Solondz’s New Jersey is ultimately an ambiguous one, where nothing is truly as it seems. Like the roach he was forced to kill in his apartment, Solondz prefers to confront darkness head-on, rather than let it hide.