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Happiness is a 1998 black comedy-drama film written and directed by Todd Solondz, that portrays the lives of three sisters, their families and those around them. The film was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festivalmarker for "its bold tracking of controversial contemporary themes, richly-layered subtext, and remarkable fluidity of visual style," and the cast received the National Board of Review award for best ensemble performance.


Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), the youngest sister, is a successful author who is adored and envied by everyone she knows, and can have any man she wants. But her charmed life leaves her ultimately unfulfilled, and she vainly despairs that people only love her for her mystique and that no one wants her for herself, and that the praise regularly heaped upon her is undeserved. She is fascinated by her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who makes obscene phone calls to her apartment and tries to seek out a relationship with her. Allen ultimately sinks into depression as Helen's rejection of him ruins his fantasies, and he realizes that a woman who truly cares for him (Camryn Manheim) has been right under his nose all along.

Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), the middle sister, is an upper middle class housewife happily married to psychiatrist Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) and has three children. Unbeknownst to Trish, however, Bill is a pedophile. He develops an obsession with 11-year-old Johnny Grasso (Evan Silverberg), a classmate of his son, Billy (Rufus Read). When Johnny comes for a sleepover, Maplewood drugs Johnny - as well as his own family - and then sodomizes him while he is unconscious. Later, he learns that another boy, Ronald Farber, is home alone while his parents are away in Europe. Under the guise of attending a PTA meeting, Maplewood drives to Farber's house and, we assume, rapes him. In both cases the rape is implied and not actually shown.

After Johnny is taken to the hospital and found to have been sexually abused, the police arrive at the Maplewood residence to talk about Johnny Grasso. After alerting his wife to the police presence, Bill begins by asking the two detectives, "So, you wanted to talk about Ronald Farber?" The two detectives, looking puzzled, say nothing. Bill then stammers, "I mean, Johnny Grasso." Out on bail, he tearfully admits to Billy that he raped the boys, that he enjoyed it, and that he would do it again. When Billy asks, "Would you ever fuck me?", his father replies, "No. I'd jerk off instead."

Joy (Jane Adams), the eldest sister and struggling musician, is seen by her family as overly sensitive and lacking direction. She works in telephone sales, but leaves to do something more fulfilling: teaching at an immigrant-education center. Her students call her a scab, because their original teacher was striking, and she begins to feel empty in that job too. Joy is also constantly let down in her personal life. After a rejected suitor, Andy (Jon Lovitz), calls her shallow at the beginning of the film and then goes on to kill himself, Helen tries to set her up with other men. Expecting to hear from a suitor, she instead gets an obscene call from Allen. Later one of her Russian students, Vladimir (Jared Harris), offers her a ride in his taxi and they end up going inside together. He seduces her, and she seems to feel happy for the first time in the movie. In the coming days, however, Joy realizes Vlad was using her and that he may be married. After being attacked by his wife and lending him $500, she is back to being alone.

Finally, the sisters' parents, Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara) are separating after 40 years of marriage, but will not get divorced. Lenny is bored with his marriage, but does not want to start another relationship; he simply "wants to be alone." As Mona copes with being single during her twilight years, Lenny tries to rekindle his enthusiasm for life by having an affair with a neighbor. It is no use, however, as Lenny eventually finds that he has become incapable of emotion. The only person who seems happy at the end is Billy, who throughout the movie attempts to make himself ejaculate and finally succeeds.


The title track Happiness was written by Eytan Mirsky. In the film it is sung by actress Jane Adams in a scene and by Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix over the credits.

The following music is played in the film:

Critical reception

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "...the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision...In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity."

He gave the film four out of four stars, and rated it #5 in his top 10 films of 1998, saying also, "It is not a film for most people. It is certainly for adults only. But it shows Todd Solondz as a filmmaker who deserves attention, who hears the unhappiness in the air and seeks its sources."


The film was highly controversial for its heavy sexual themes, especially its portrayal of Bill, a pedophile and rapist, as a three-dimensional human being with redeeming qualities.

Happiness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and that caused the film to be limited in distribution; the film also had difficulty in advertising. For that particular reason, Happiness surrendered the NC-17 rating and was instead released unrated. The poster art was done by comic book creator Daniel Clowes.


  • 1998 Cannes Film Festival - FIPRESCI Prize, Parallel Sections
  • 1999 Golden Globes - Nominated for Best Screenplay (Todd Solondz)
  • 1998 National Board of Review, USA - Best Acting by and Ensemble
  • 1999 Independent Spirit Awards - Nominated for Best Director (Todd Solondz), Best Male Lead (Dylan Baker), Best Supporting Male (Philip Seaymour Hoffman)
  • 1998 São Paulo International Film Festival - International Jury Award
  • 1998 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival - Critic's Choice Award: Best Actor - Dylan Baker; Best Film
  • 1998 Toronto International Film Festival - Metro Media Award
  • 1999 British Independent Film Award - Best Foreign Film, English Language
  • 1999 Chlotrudis Awards - Best Screenplay - Todd Solondz
  • 1999 Fantasporto - Directors' Week Award - Todd Solondz

See also


  1. Happiness Awards at IMDB

External links

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