Todd Solondz is a rare talent. He is able to balance tragedy and comedy in such a way that it can leave the audience rather confused whether to laugh or to cry. Happiness is probably his peak film, and one I dearly loved the first time I watched it, despite some very obvious flaws. It is because of those flaws that I was rather hesitant to revisit the film, and I will say that the experience was a little different the second time around. The result is still the same though. Happiness is a rare comedy that needs to be cherished, though it's not going to be for everyone.
Happiness was a pretty brutal and offensive film for its time. Even though many people consider contemporary times to be more prudish and woke when it comes to comedy, I think the boundaries have actually shifted to allow for way darker and more confronting styles of humor, although probably not in the realm of cinema (you'll find it now with stand-up comedians like Jimmy Carr and more notably, Frankie Boyle). Rewatching Solondz' pivotal film, you do feel like some of the edge has faded, thankfully that's not all Solondz relies on.
The first time I watched Happiness, I was particularly attracted by the film's cynical undertone. I didn't really care for the characters and was happy enough to have a laugh at their expense. Watching this film again, I do feel the tragedy of the situations and the inability of the characters to change their fate adds plenty to the enjoyment, though that still doesn't guarantee any emotional bond or sympathy for the cast. I felt that contrast is mostly just a way to highlight the discomfort and to add an extra layer of confusion. Of course, your mileage may vary, it's just good to know the film works in more ways than one.
There isn't much in the way of a real plot, instead the film offers several vignettes sporting a varied group of people who are (vaguely) connected to each other. There is a 30-year-old woman struggling to find a partner, a successful writer struggling to find passion, a lecherous virgin who calls up women and harasses them, a woman who lives in the same apartment building who desperately wants to connect with him, a doctor with pedophile tendencies and an older couple whose marriage is all but dead. The common thread here is that neither of the featured characters is very happy with their lives.
If Happiness has one major flaw, it's that the cinematography is pretty horrible. And it's not that Solondz didn't get the style quite right, it's more that there isn't any real style to speak of. There are some scenes that do try to stand out a little, but for the larger part you're watching a film with drab colors, uninteresting camera work, lazy framing and unadventurous editing. A good comedy doesn't really need strong visuals to be successful, but I do think Solondz could've used better styling choices to further highlight and set apart the comedy.
The soundtrack isn't much better than the cinematography to be honest, but it does contain stronger proof that some kind of effort was made to poke fun at the characters. The music is pretty light and breezy, a happy score that goes well with the title, not so much with the pain and hardships the characters have to endure. It's this contrast that helps to underline the cynical tone of the film, though I do feel that Solondz could've pushed it a lot further. The intentions were good, the execution just needed a little extra work.
As for the cast, I have absolutely no complaints there. It's not easy to land that exact balance between overselling the tragedy of the characters, drawing the right amount of sympathy from the audience and being the clear butt of the joke, but there are no weak or out of place performances to be found. Adams, Hoffman and Baker were the clear stand-outs for me (the latter in particular is so convincing it's actually scary), but the rest of the cast is not far behind, and they all deserve to be commended for their work here.
This isn't a film you watch for the plot, instead, Solondz makes sure the audience has plenty of time and opportunity to get to know the characters a little better. And these characters are definitely worth getting to know, though only if you can stomach their defects (which can get pretty grotesque). Life has thrown them some nasty curveballs, and every single one of them is ill-equipped to deal with the hand that they've been dealt. The best scenes are those where different characters meet up and try to find comfort in each other's company (like the ice-cream scene). But again, you need a specific sense of humor to appreciate this to its fullest.
I'm a sucker for highly stylistic, maximalist cinema, which is everything Happiness is not. It's good then that I like to make an exception for comedies (see Visitor Q) when they're really exceptional. Solondz' unique talent is making extreme tragedy fun, pushing things into uncomfortable territory, and there is no better film than Happiness to illustrate this very particular skill. It's the reason why this film still feel poignant, even though the boundaries of comedy have shifted a lot more since its original release, a little over two decades ago. It's a safe recommend if you can appreciate the darker corners of comedy, a wild but possibly worthwhile gamble if you don't.