Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
What is Happiness? Like its peers Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Short Cuts or Mulholland Dr., Todd Solondz’s “black comedy” is an ambitious nineties indie built around an ensemble cast, playing the pieces of their writer/director’s sprawling, interconnected puzzle. Unlike those films, it’s so stuck in the nineties that you can’t stream it, anywhere (I was able to view it thanks to one of the only open video stores in my area).
Considering its content, Happiness’ scarcity makes sense. The movie is built around a family of three sisters: Joy (Jane Adams), a down-on-her-luck musician, Trish (Cynthia Stevens), a stay-at-home mother of three, and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a wildly successful poet. Solondz only really cares about Joy, the most obviously unhappy of the three. That’s right, her name is, wait for it, ironic.
“People are always putting New Jersey down. But that’s because they don’t get it: I’m living in a state of irony.” Ok, maybe the film can be fitfully funny. Helen also lives down the hall from Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man convinced that he’s painfully boring. He’s Solondz’s second subject, and his big hobby is making obscene phone calls to strangers while pleasuring himself.
Allen seems to keep this side of himself secret, even from his therapist, Bill (Dylan Baker). I’ll make this next section short: Bill is also Trish’s husband, as well as a serial sexual predator and a pedophile. Solondz stages a few truly disgusting days in Bill’s life, in which the suburban dad drugs his entire family and molests two of his son’s classmates. We don’t see these heinous actions on-screen, but Solondz doesn’t give us too much distance from them either – Bill receives the same treatment as Joy and Allen. It’s repulsive, regularly.
In fact, this Happiness’ fatal flaw: its repulsion becomes a commodity it mistakes for honesty. The more Solondz pushes our buttons, the more he thinks he’s revealing the truth. Instead of leading us in and out of the darkness, the film lacks any light. At least the screenplay coheres: in the case of all the characters, we see that getting what you want does not make you happy. Even when one’s desires are fulfilled, misery lies around every corner, or at least at the end of every scene.
By placing three wildly different subjects side-by-side, Solondz succeeds in making this broad psychological point. It’s the most memorable and terrifying idea in Happiness – that the forces driving Bill’s actions are not so different from what’s going on in Joy’s head, which isn’t so removed from how you or I think. Still, this is not a very deep insight – Solondz spends two hours and twenty minutes articulating the type of thing that comes up in an intro psych course.
Happiness swings for the fences and seeks to speak to all – so we don’t get to spend too much time with any one character. Yes, in the case of Bill that’s welcome, but it isn’t really about any of these people, specifically. On the page, Allen probably suffers the most – as the movie’s awkward middle child, he’s grosser than Joy but not as gross as Bill, while not as clearly defined as either.
And so Philip Seymour Hoffman yet again does a lot of heavy-lifting, humanizing this incel-esque figure. I think Solondz wants us to identify with these people enough to empathize with them, but not so much that we endorse them. Thanks less to his writing and more to Hoffman’s performance, Allen lands closest to this middle. His portions of Happiness bear a striking resemblance to Eraserhead, from the overbearing sense of sexual repression to his apartment hallway, which looks designed to resemble the one in Lynch’s work.
Of the seven Hoffman films I’ve discussed so far, this is easily the edgiest he’s lent his talents to. The actor seems to have no reservations investing in this person’s lonely, pathetic perspective. Allen seems caught in a spiral, a prison of his own making. The mechanisms he’s developed to cope with his repression are the same mechanisms that keep him repressed. That’s not a fun position to find yourself in. Wearing a sweaty comb-over and a wardrobe that just doesn’t seem to fit, when the movie lets him, Hoffman does make Allen’s predicament sympathetic.
We don’t like him, but we don’t hate him. Hoffman’s quite funny here too: after he’s rejected by Helen, Allen goes on a date with another woman who lives in his building, Kristina (Camryn Manheim). Things are going well, until Kristina confesses that she killed their doorman, Pedro, after Pedro raped her. Allen squirms; his reaction to the story is just perfect. He’s just the right level of uncomfortable, nonchalant and understanding. His response is the only normal thing about the scene, and the only reason it registers as comedy.
I know I’ll get other chances to talk about Hoffman’s comedic chops – I’m looking forward to it. But it is Hoffman’s dedication to presenting Allen in an honest, uncompromising light without letting Allen alienate us that proves this performance shines. What a paradox, casting such an interesting actor as such a “boring” person. This could’ve devolved into showy, loud work (trust me, Solondz has Hoffman doing some showy, loud actions) – instead, Hoffman blends into the texture of the film, playing his part perfectly without stealing the show.
[W]hen the movie lets him, Hoffman does make Allen’s predicament sympathetic.
In a 2016 re-examination, critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes that when he reviewed Happiness in 1998, he found it “adolescent.” On rewatch, a decade and a half later, he found it “funny, sad, sincere, ugly, tough, weird, occasionally horrifying,” admitting, “I had no idea why I panned it.” Zoller Seitz attributes his initial dismissal to being in too good of a place to see the film’s truth.
Well, I’m in an okay place right now, and maybe that’s why I found Happiness just… okay. Like Zoller Seitz then, I find it adolescent, and like him “now,” I find it insightful. I can see two possible paths. Perhaps, in a decade or two, I will return to Happiness and soak up its witches brew of black comedy and genuine tragedy like a sponge. But more likely, I’ll forget about it. For all its provocations and great performances, none of it had me invested to the point I think it’ll leave a lasting mark.
Maybe I’m hoping I’ll forget it. Maybe, as Zoller Seitz describes it, the film is threatening me. Or maybe, it’s just not that deep.