The characters in “Happiness,” Todd Solondz’s tender, shocking, cathartically honest comedy of desire and despair, do everything in their power to gratify their sexual and romantic longings. The movie’s aching potency lies in how little is within their power. At the beginning, a young man (Philip Seymour Hoffman), plump and miserable, a mouth breather with ugly glasses and greasy flat hair, sits in a psychiatrist’s office and describes his violent lust for a woman in his building. His nerdishness is undercut by his sputtering porno fantasy — it’s as if he were drowning in hormones — and later, when he begins to make obscene phone calls, we recognize the awfulness of what he’s doing and, at the same time, we understand just why he’s doing it. Degradation merges with empathy, and that, in one quietly outrageous scene after another, is what happens for the rest of the film. It marks the emergence of a major American filmmaker.
Set mostly in suburban New Jersey, the film takes its time revealing the ways its dozen or so characters are related, and that’s part of Solondz’s design; we seem to be discovering how their personalities complete each other. The nerd’s next-door-neighbor goddess is a trendy writer of transgressive poetry (Lara Flynn Boyle) who lords it over her two sisters: melancholy Joy (Jane Adams), a guitar-strumming waif who suffers from pathological niceness, and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a chirpy, passive-aggressive housewife. Their parents (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) are ending a loveless 40-year marriage, and Happiness, indeed, views domestic life as a snake pit of secrets. In the film’s astonishing dramatic centerpiece, Trish’s blandly unsmiling husband, Bill (Dylan Baker), turns out to be a feverish gay pedophile. Between weirdly kinky fatherly chats with his preteen son (Rufus Read), he uses sleep-over nights to drug his family into unconsciousness and do unspeakable things to the boy’s friends.
A few of the characters aren’t as richly imagined. Boyle’s author vixen is a vindictive caricature, and there are winking throwaways like the deadbeat Russian cabbie (Jared Harris) who offers Joy a fleeting moment of amorous hope. Yet “Happiness” stares at its characters with a voyeuristic candor so unflinching it becomes a kind of twisted benediction. The film is really inviting us to meditate on the chasm between our public and private selves (a notion that may have special resonance in the age of Monicagate).
Like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson, Solondz revels in ironic pop passion. It’s a signature moment when he transforms Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” into a geek-love rhapsody. His most audacious triumph, however, is fashioning the covetings of a pedophile into a universal projection of sexual obsession and unease. Dylan Baker, in a brilliant, layered performance, makes Bill so compartmentalized that his every sentence exists in its own hyper-controlled stratosphere. When he finally breaks down, tearfully confessing his hidden lust to his son, the movie achieves a spooky ambiguity, with the boy at once revulsed and wounded by what he experiences as his father’s rejection of him. “Happiness” lets no one off the hook. In the wild final scene, even the boy, at last, gets his welcome to the dollhouse of desire.