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Why Be 'Happiness'?

[whitespace] Todd Solondz The Director Who Came in for the Scold: 'Happiness' creator Todd Solondz

'Happiness' and 'Pleasantville' differ not in theme but in attitude

By Richard von Busack

MOST FILMMAKERS are either Kenneth Starrs or Bill Clintons. They probe human iniquity or they make allowances for the weaknesses of men and women. And it looks like the Starrs are coming out this season; first there was the prosecutorial Your Friends and Neighbors and now Todd Solondz's Happiness.

Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) has received a double honor: the International Critics Prize at Cannes and the expensive thrill of having Happiness dumped by its contractual distributor because of its subject matter. Thus, you'd expect a work of art powerful enough to break down barriers, but Happiness turns out to be as accusatory as the Starr report.

By contrast with Happiness' tirades against New Jersey, Pleasantville, which also opens this Friday, is a milder satire of suburban life. The high point of shock in Happiness is a father confessing lust for his son; Pleasantville, which will shock no one, includes a scene in which a son instructs his (surrogate) mother in the techniques of masturbation. What's the difference? It's all in the attitude.

Happiness concerns three generations of a dysfunctional New Jersey family. The elder Jordans (Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara) are retired and living in Boca Raton. The Jordans' three daughters all have troubles: Joy (Jane Adams) is an unsuccessful singer/songwriter; Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful writer of feminist poetry who longs for degrading sex; Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is a happily married housewife--happy because she doesn't know that her husband (Dylan Baker) is a pedophile.

The subsidiary characters reinforce Solondz's thesis: trying to break out of a rut will only earn you further punishment. When Joy takes a lover, he turns out to be an abusive thief; when Dad reluctantly has a tryst to escape his loveless marriage, the lady has (an off-camera) stroke.

Dan Clowes (author of Eightball comics) illustrated the poster for Happiness, and weirdly, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dead ringer for Clowes' Young Dan Pussey. Hoffman plays Helen's neighbor, who is making obscene phone calls to vent his aggression and loneliness. Helen, who receives one of the calls, is turned on, which scares the pale, dumpy Allen into further shyness.

The shock value of a semen shot--two different splashes--gives Happiness some daring cachet. So does the pedophiliac Bill, whose efforts to get close to a neighbor boy are based on parts of Lolita left out of the recent movie version.

At more than two hours, the film equates all sorts of evil at the same level: marital cheating equals boy-raping equals murder. By running these misdeeds together into one big accusation against the Jordans in toto, Solondz is showing the Ken Starr in him; what's important isn't the magnitude of the crime, but the lies that cover it up.

I'll be shocked if Pleasantville isn't a hit, as shocked as I was supposed to be by the semen in Happiness. Pleasantville is a straightforward fable. An unhappy pair of modern teenagers, Dave and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, Tobey Maguire), have a wish granted: they get to go live inside the '50s TV sitcom that they idolize. (Don Knotts, noble old man, is the genie who sends them there.)

Faced with all of the things they wanted--firm, loving parenting by Betty and George (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), residency in a beautiful little town where nothing changes--Dave and Jennifer quickly go nuts. But they bring a germ of rebellion with them from our world, and this rebellious spark turns the black-and-white Pleasantville Technicolor.

It's not the most original story, but Macy was the perfect choice to play a '50s sitcom father, having the face of all of those trustworthy light comedians in the inane Ike-era sitcoms. Allen is my favorite living American tragedian. When she shows strength, she always shows what strength costs.

Of course, Pleasantville, being slick as lard, makes Allen's transformation from neutered housewife to potential adulteress a quick process. I wanted to see Allen's hesitancy--her fear; maybe I just plain wanted to see more of Allen and a lot less of Maguire, who embodies the less pleasant side of Pleasantville: how very pleased with itself it is.

The film's faith in the transformative quality of good books is bound to be mocked as middlebrow. It will be pointed out that an audience will respect Moby-Dick (honored in a mural in the movie) rather than go out and read it. But the pleasant, corny technical trickery of black-and-white characters turning bit by bit to color may be enough to please.

Pleasantville can be read as an artistic backlash against the loathsome Starr. The film celebrates sex, art and passion, promising the audience that the solid gray America of the '50s will never return.

Solondz wouldn't buy a story like that. In Happiness, sex is either joyless or solitary or both; and in his film, neither art nor anger will free you from the state of alienation or the state of New Jersey. Happiness aspires to shock audiences with the unnaturalness of man. But as the Roman poet Terence wrote, If you're human, nothing is foreign to you. Given a choice between cheap, perhaps hypocritical, humanism (a la Clinton) and dire moralism (Starr), I'll go with capital-T Truth and capital-B Beauty every time.

Happiness (Unrated; 140 min.), directed and written by Todd Solondz, photographed by Maryse Alberti and starring Jane Adams, Ben Gazzara and Dylan Baker.

Pleasantville (PG-13; 123 min.), directed and written by Gary Ross, photographed by John Lindley and starring Reese Witherspoon and William H. Macy.

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From the October 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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