In Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, an interviewed lion tamer claims that the chair is such a useful tool of the trade because, if thrusted at a lion, it confuses them: they see four distinct points approaching and can't decide which to attack. Todd Solondz's filmmaking technique is a bit like the lion tamer's chair: it comes at an audience from so many angles that detractors can't be sure what to detract and supporters can't be sure what to support. (Having recently finished viewing his entire catalog, I indentify as a Solondz supporter.) Happiness, for instance, has pedophilia, infidelity, misogyny and frustrated adolescent hope for ejaculation. (There's more, to be sure, but those are just the major themes.) What it doesn't have is a moralizing perspective. Just as Tim Roth could so easily have made The War Zone into yet another Victory Over IncestTM, Solondz could have made this movie into, I don't know, a bold statement against drugging kids and having sex with them. Yep, that takes courage.
Nor, it need hardly be said, is Happiness pro-pedophilia. (Now that would take courage, though it would be a more imaginative mind than mine that could dream up how to pull it off.) It has no particular stance on pedophilia, nor the middle-aged suburban psychologist dad who commits it on his son's pal. Nor does feel the need to refrain from trying to express to its audience the worshipful attraction the pedophile dad harbors for this kid or the overwhelming anticipation of his consumption of his drugged sandwich — or the unbearable anxiety that he might not eat the sandwich at all. We don't all lust after 11-year-old boys, but we've all felt that about something.
I'm sort of glad I didn't watch this movie at the time of its release; in a teenage mind, I'm sure Solondz's faintly squalid, often perverse milieu, though it extends to the city, resonates as one of those tiresome behold-suburbia's-seamy-underbelly wails, a cynical faux exposé of the squeaky-clean village teeming with randy cab drivers, obscene phone callers, murderous spinsters and dads who rape your baseball teammates. Though not yet at full maturity — I doubt I'll ever go so far as to reach that — I've long since passed the age at which one suspects — hopes? — that beneath all civilization's façade lies a dark abyss of nihilistic hostility and sexual deviancy which would only be exposed if adults would just stop being so hypocritical, man. (I considered simply writing that off as one juvenile belief among many, but it's really more the essence of all juvenile beliefs.)
Indeed, I could go on for quite a while about what Happiness is not. Just as Solondz refuses to overtly judge his characters and their actions, he also refuses to nail down precisely what sort of a filmic project he's engaged in. There's his cast of exaggerated losers on the one hand, but on the other is the unusual look and feel with which he presents them. I've struggled to find a proper descriptor, but perhaps the best way to describe the larger surface of Happiness is to call it an homage to daytime cable TV movies: near-parodic manneredness, cheap-looking yet just-so decor, brightly lit and almost theatrically-staged mise-en-scène, plus a score so on-the-nose that it breaks the boundaries of irony and comes around the other side.
So, like a tamer's lion, I'm confused about what the picture is. Unlike the lion, I enjoy that confusion. A friend called the film a "grotesque fantasy", and that strikes me as about right, though it seems to me that Solondz is best when riding the line, leaning so far to one side that he's one misdirected breath from hitting the hard pavement of the ridiculous. Actually, throughout Happiness, he does topple to the ground a few times: his characters start out unreal enough, but in certain moments the combined effect of their elaborately constructed nature and the film's fake-y aesthetic becomes too much to take seriously. But at least his small failures are triggered by overreach than underreach; insufficient ambition accounts for the most, and worst, cinematic sins of our time.