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Cinematic balancing act brings Solondz `Happiness'

TORONTO It is a disturbing movie. People don't know how to think about it. They laugh, and then they squirm. Afterward, they get into heated discussions, some calling it trash, others insisting it's a masterpiece. "Happiness" is like a challenge hurled at audiences who think movies should come with built-in viewing instructions - with cues to the appropriate response.

The movie, which opens Friday in Chicago at the Music Box, is the standard bearer of the New Geek Cinema - the movement by many young filmmakers to combine outrageous behavior with self-aware irony. The parents of the New Geeks are David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino; the many grandparents include Ed Wood and Russ Meyer. The tradition includes that night in Paris in the 1920s when Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel showed their shocking "Un Chien Andalou," and Bunuel loaded his pockets with rocks to throw if the audience attacked him.

What is curious about "Happiness" is that, in addition to everything else, the film is . . . touching. Its characters include a pedophile, an obscene phone caller and a woman who cuts up her doorman and keeps him in plastic bags in the freezer ("Everyone uses Baggies. That's why we can relate to this crime"). We hear the phone calls, but the worst transgressions remain off screen; the movie doesn't sensationalize the behavior of its characters, but regards the forlorn and desolate lives that produce it. Yet it is not an entirely serious or sincere film; moments of metaphysical insight will be followed by shots that could be found in "There's Something About Mary."

The movie takes place in suburban New Jersey, where three sisters occupy a spectrum: One is a contented homemaker; one is a depressed loser, and one is, or thinks she is, a successful poet. The homemaker's husband is a psychiatrist and a pedophile. The poet's neighbor is a miserable loner who makes dirty phone calls. Across the hall from them lives a chirpy fat girl who has the parts in her freezer. The mother of the sisters depends on Valium; their father wants a divorce. Other characters enter briefly, offering happiness that they do not provide.

Telling their stories, director Todd Solondz moves from ridicule to compassion and back again. This kind of unsettling, off-balance filmmaking is a high-wire act. Directors risk spectacular falls. Imagine this metaphor: Solondz is up on the wire, working without a net. He leaves the safety of his perch. He skips rope, and we laugh. He almost falls, and we gasp. He produces a knife and amputates a thumb. We scream and look away as the blood drips to the sawdust below. He reveals that it was only an illusion. We are relieved. Now he falls for real, and catches himself on the wire, which really does sever his thumb. We recoil, but by now we are also analyzing our own reactions to this spectacle. He climbs back up on the wire. His act does not end when he reaches the other side. It ends with him still balanced in the center of the wire, which trembles. It is a long way down.

"It's a tricky movie," Solondz was telling me. We were talking after the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film, which had already won the Critics' Prize at Cannes and played at Telluride. He looked, well, like a nerd. It may almost be calculated. Would anybody wear glasses like that by accident?

"The thing that seems to unsettle people is that there are characters whose behavior may be abhorrent, repellent, repugnant. And yet we can't dismiss these characters. They can't be reduced to the pedophile, the obscene phone caller, the lady who dismembers her what-have-you. They have hearts and minds and lives that are bleeding. I care and, in a certain sense, I am asking the audience to care for people who might be the last people in the world we want to care for."

In a certain sense. That's what's trickiest about "Happiness." In a certain sense he wants us to care, and in another sense, or maybe it's the same sense, he wants us to laugh. After his fat neighbor confesses to having killed the doorman by twisting his neck (after he had raped her), the phone caller replies, "We all have our pluses and minuses." They are sitting in an all-night diner, where she then orders dessert.

Do we laugh or do we care? "If I laugh at any mortal thing," wrote Byron, " 'tis that I may not weep." We want to laugh at the phone caller, and we do, a couple of times. But as he crosses off names in his phone book, we sense his despair. He is a damaged person, who tells his psychiatrist he is "boring, boring, boring" - and is. Conversation with a woman strikes him dumb. His nose seems permanently blocked; he breathes through his mouth, giving himself an expression of perpetual puzzlement. If we sympathize with him, it is not because we approve of his phone calls. It is that we see that he must make them; they may be all that keeps him from suicide. (Of course then Solondz gives another twist to the screw by having him call a woman who wants him to keep talking - calling his bluff.)

"People have asked me, `Ugh! Why do you make a film about these people? They're so unlikable.' Well, I like them, I happen to care deeply for these characters. The way these people respond to the film says more about them than about me as a filmmaker. They say my characters are so ugly. It never struck me that way. I don't see them as ugly. They are all suffering."

What are they looking for? What would make them happy? To be loved. Early in the film, a rejected suitor grabs back the ashtray he has just given his former girlfriend and snarls, "This is for the girl who loves me for who I am."

"To my mind, there are two kinds of happiness," Solondz told me. "What interests me about the title is not the ironic aspect, but what's not ironic. On the one hand, there is the happiness of buying a car or having sex. It's a superficial happiness. On the other hand, there's a kind of transience and contentment. It relates more to compassion or tolerance. The second kind is more elusive. You can't put a name to it. The distinction between these two kinds of happiness is lost on these characters."

They seek happiness, though, in ways that are antisocial at best and immoral and criminal at worst.

"The film is not about pedophilia or about obscene phone calls or anything like that," Solondz said. "These are devices that get to the larger themes of alienation, isolation and the struggle to connect. It's not even about sex. We live in a country where alienation is more acutely felt than anywhere else in the world. We lack a sense of family, of a community that shapes one's identity. My sister lives in Boston, my brother lives in L.A., my parents lived in Arizona and yet we're from a `close family,' and there's no irony intended."

As "Happiness" went around the festival circuit, it was joined by other examples of the New Geek Cinema, such as "Thursday" and "Very Bad Things." (I mean the term as descriptive, not negative; some Geek films are good and others are appalling.) At the same time, the top box-office hit in America was the New Geek film "There's Something About Mary," which had audiences roaring with laughter at scenes that once would have gotten exhibitors arrested.

"I was at Telluride," Solondz said, "and there was a moderator who said, `In 10 years they'll remember 1998 as the year of "Happiness," "Something About Mary" and Monica Lewinsky's dress.' I couldn't have anticipated the Lewinsky scandal, and yet it seems inevitable, given the way our culture has been heading, that this sort of thing would happen. It's not even a conscious effort on my part to be in tune. There's nothing in my movie taboowise that you won't see on a TV talk show any day of the week. It's all out there.

"There's a difference, though. On TV it tends to be discussed in a dual way. On the one hand there's a righteous moralism - people saying `rape is bad' as if there were an argument. And then the other side is `look at this horrible, horrible crime,' as they move in for the closeup. At the extreme closeup there comes a titillating sort of entertainment. There's a kind of freak show aspect: the moralistic and exploitative attitudes at the same time."

Yes. Like in the original carnival geek shows, where a drunk would bite the head off a live chicken, while the guy with the microphone lectured the audience about wet brain and the dangers of alcoholism. The difference in a film like "Happiness" is that you never see the chicken and you never get the lecture. You see the geeks and have to infer their sadness and imagine their sins. The most frightening thing about the movie is that it may not be showing sideshow attractions, but people who walk among us. "The mass of men," said Emerson, "lead lives of quiet desperation."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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