Without a doubt, Todd Solondz's creepy, disturbing, and subversively hilarious masterpiece "Happiness" was my favorite film of 1998. Savage, but divisive, I've discovered through the years that the film tends to engender strong feelings of either hatred or of adoration with little middle ground. To be fair, with its mature themes and aggressive frankness, it may be one of the most squirm inducing comedies of all time. And yet this tale of three sisters and their immediate family also resonates with a certain amount of truth. The world is how we construct it but, often times, that construction is nothing more than an illusion. And those closest to us are either complicit in that deceit or are the only ones who can see through the cracks. A skewering of middle class ideals and insecurities, "Happiness" was a pitch perfect blend of the outrageous and the macabre.
When I heard that Solondz intended to revisit this masterpiece, casting new actors, it seemed like an inspired addition to his increasingly non-conformist resume. Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy now inhabit the roles originated by Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson, and Lara Flynn Boyle respectively. All three do an excellent job of recapturing the essence of their character's neuroses--Sheedy, unfortunately, has more of a cameo but her scenes are dead-on hilarious. The film begins with an absolutely perfect scene between Henderson and her husband that mirrors the first scene from "Happiness" in a sublimely funny way. When we move on to Janney, a control freak desperately looking for love, I knew that Solondz had done it again. The primary plot points involve Henderson dealing with a past lover's suicide (Jon Lovitz's ghost interpreted by Paul Reubens--inspired!), Janney's ex-husband (Ciaran Hinds) being released from prison, and Janney's son dealing with some pretty adult concepts.
However, as the film progresses, the very funny bits become overshadowed by bigger issues. Redemption and mortality end up being central themes--which I think is fantastic--but the blend between comedy and significance falls short of the delicately balanced "Happiness." The film loses a bit of its subversive edge and tone and by the end, I felt a little short-changed by the abrupt finale. I loved the actors--Janney and Henderson do most of the heavy lifting and are terrific. Young Dylan Riley Snyder, as Janney's son Timmy, carries much of the film and is an intriguing combination of creepy and sympathetic. I adored the first half of "Life During Wartime," but having a fresh viewing of "Happiness" under your belt will help you appreciate how great it really is. Ultimately, the second half wasn't as effective for me and I was left a little cold. About 3 1/2 stars overall, I'm rounding up for ambition. Go watch "Happiness!" KGHarris, 8/10.
New digital transfer, supervised and approved by director of photography Ed Lachman, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Ask Todd, an audio Q&A with director Todd Solondz in which he responds to viewers' questions
Making "Life During Wartime," a new documentary featuring interviews with actors Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, and Michael Kenneth Williams, and on-set footage of the actors and crew
New video piece in which Lachman discusses his work on the film
Original theatrical trailer
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Sterritt