doaskdotell MOVIE REVIEW of  Happiness; Storytelling; Palindromes; Life During Wartime; Sleepers


Title:  Happiness; Storytelling

Release Date:  1998, 2002

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 95 minutes, 85 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  NC-17 for Happiness; R for Storytelling

Distributor and Production Company:  Good Machine; New Line Cinema/Good Machine/Killer films 

Director; Writer: Todd Solondz


Cast: (Storytelling): John Goodman, Paul Giamatti, Mark Webber, Julie Hagerty


Relevance to doaskdotell site: censorship

Movie Review: Happiness (1998)

A film by Todd Solondz; Good Machine Releasing;  Officially unrated, but in practice NC-17 ("X")


Even the major "indies" didn't want to touch this film because of its very candid treatment of aggressive pedophilia. In fact, this film tests whether it is acceptable to present such a disturbing subject matter in major entertainment media as serious work.

Let's back up a bit. This film is a kind of black comedy (in the spirit of "The Cook, The Thief…") about the lives of a number of sexually maladjusted suburbanites, all tied in some way to a particular male psychiatrist. The film's title is indeed an exercise or irony. The personal problems range from a somewhat fat boy's concern for his masculinity, to a middle-aged husband's loss of interest in his aging wife, to a chubby man who compulsively places obscene phone calls to women, to the psychiatrist himself who has the problem of uncontrollably wanting pre-pubescent boys.

I really didn't find the film "funny" and found the jerky. Robert-Atlman-style of move from one chraracter to the next rather distracting and ineffective. I was never sure of Solondz's real attitude towards his dysfunctional characters. It seems to me that most of them have serious character flaws, and no other insights are really necessary.

The scenes where the psychiatrist counsels his own son about the son's coming to maturity, and then later confesses his rather brutal attack upon two young boys, come across as self-indulgent and not really coming to grips with moral failure. (The attack is not shown on camera; to do so, even with an adult simulating a child, could violate child pornography laws.) Frankly, the psychiatrist has forfeited his place in society. Although we do see the emotional reaction of his neighbors, I wanted to see a lot more of the consequences of his behavior. That is, the arrest and handcuffing, the sentencing in court, and a scene behind bars. These were missing. This scenario could have provided an opportunity to develop the subject of community sex offender notification laws.

If you're going to do a potentially offensive subject, you need to stay on the mark. So I give the film about a C+.

Storytelling (2002) presents an interesting bifurcation, following the two-movement musical format of the old standard, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #32 (or Prokofiev;s Second Symphony).  The first story is called “Fiction,” and really deals with storytelling ability as creative writers know it.  A couple of motley characters present their efforts in a writing seminar at college, and rather than accolades get brutal criticism from the professor. A student, appealing actually, with cerebral palsy (well-acted) reads a story and another student jumps on it as “trite,” and then the female student gets goaded into writing, in “racist manner” about a sexual relationship with the black instructor. There is some interesting technical discussion of writing: the issue of “too man adjectives” when it’s really “too many adverbs” that get deadly and make writing wooden.  The longer “Non-Fiction” provides a Swift-life satire of the deteriorating upper middle class (Jewish) family in suburban New Jersey. There are three boys: the oldest gay teen, who starts out as apathetic rather than rebellious, the conventional middle teen who plays football like he is supposed to (and winds up a vegetable when his neck is broken in a scrimmage), and the youngest boy who hypnotizes his father into doing something that ultimately leads to the destruction of the rest of the family. All of this happens while a filmmaker makes a documentary film about the family. The gay son (Webber), first so self-indulgently attached to his music collection (like I was “married” to my classical records as a teen, much to the dismay of my father—but I was a good student, however labored) gradually starts come to life through interacting with the filmmaker and is eventually the only family member to survive. The filmmaker starts to get stuff out of the boy: despite his baseline laziness, he wants to be “famous” and be “recognized” and have a talk show like David Letterman (not Rush Limbaugh). (Does he want to be “famous” over projects chosen by him, or by parroting the work of others in order to please people? His personality is too ambiguous for us to tell whether he is balanced or unbalanced.) Maybe if he rebels enough someone will pay him for his notoriety. You are left with the impression that he will be an effective gay young adult, however “cute,” after all.  There is one bedroom scene where he teases a gay classmate with a pistol; then the classmate, suddenly excited by the sight of those teenage-boy super hairy legs showing, asks to go down on him. Typical Solontz. ----

Palindromes (2005, Wellspring, dir. Todd Solontz, prob. NC-17) is an artsy exercise about simple people. The title refers to a word or sequence that plays back the same as when played forward (as with the last movement of the Hindemith Horn Concerto, recorded around 1958 by Dennis Brain on Angel). Two of the major characters, Aviva and Otto (the name that the fat boy who eventually makes her a mother assumes) have such names. Now Aviva will be played by eight actresses, two of them black—and yet there is this continuity anyway. In the very first scene, the black girl tells a white mother that she wants many babies so she will always have someone to love. (That line somehow reminds me of all of Maggie Gallagher’s pro-traditional-marriage essays in conservative magazines.) It is apparent that she is young – thirteen – and later on the film will have some frank mention of pedophilia and illegality. A “fat boy,” himself probably underage and a bit of a self-indulgent nerd, manipulates her (they remain clothed and the activity is suggested) to give her a baby. There comes a fight over the abortion that her parents insist on (they show the vitriolic protestors at the abortion clinic and one line of the script refers to the unborn baby as a “tumor”), then a road trip through New Jersey that leads her to the Sunshine House, where a folksy couple is taking care of a lot of disabled kids. One of them is an albino girl with a well known genetic near blindness; another has Downs’, and another is an attractive teenage boy who dances well and seems to have nothing wrong.  They brag that they have saved kids from abortion, and soon Aviva (aka Henrietta) finds her way on a road trip to the Midwest where another boyfriend will assassinate an abortionist (and his kid first). In this country, relatively few people (outside of judges) are attacked by activists for their actions or views.

Life During Wartime (2010, IFC, dir. Todd Solondz) is a kind of “Happiness II”, The sex offender comes back, as a kind of Bubber Reeves. Blogger.

These films provide me a good context to mention another, bigger film, the Warner Brothers/Polygram 1996 effort Sleepers, starring Robert Di Niro, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, and Kevin Bacon, written and directed by Barry Levinson, based on the novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra. The film is in three distinct parts: (1) the misadventures (involving robbing a hotdog vendor and pushing the cart down the subways steps, critically injuring someone) of four teenage boys in the Hells Kitchen neighborhood of New York City’s west side during the 1960’s, leading (2) to their incarceration in a boys’ home where they are stared and ogled at, then undergo outright sexual abuse, particularly at the hands of one guard played by Kevin Bacon, and (3) their “execution” of the Bacon character in a West Side straight bar and the ensuing trial. What was interesting to me was that the film does deal directly with pedophilia (in one scene a boy undresses to his briefs while the guard stares on) but was nevertheless shown by ABC during prime time on Saturday, March 4, 2000.  So, in the context of COPA, maybe it is acceptable to present very adult material (even if not directly explicit in what it “shows”) where children can see them.      





Related reviews: Vera Drake; Swing Vote  Lolita and similar films


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