The dialogue exchange that most people probably remember from Todd Solondz's Happiness comes near the end (and is prominently featured in the film's trailers). After a laughing fit spurred by one of her sister Joy's recent misfortunes, Lara Flynn Boyle's Helen turns to her sister (played by Jane Adams) and says: "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you," to which Joy replies, "But I'm not laughing." The exchange also gets at the heart of critical responses to Solondz's work as well. Are we laughing at the sad and often terrible people populating these films, or are we meant to connect, to see ourselves reflected in them? The first, and logical response, to some of the characters in Happiness is to recoil. Look at Dylan Baker's psychiatrist/pedophile Bill, who daydreams of mowing down happy park-goers with an assault rifle and jerks off in the car to magazine photos of male teenage pop stars. Then there's Philip Seymour Hoffman's Allen, who works out his lust for neighbor Helen by making obscene phone calls. These are unpleasant people, as are most members of the large cast, but Solondz follows them unflinchingly and, I think, largely unjudgingly. Despite the (obviously ironic) title, these are unhappy people who still desperately want to connect yet seem oblivious to the damage they inflict. Some of the film's nastiest bits play out in a sort of jaunty, almost sitcom-like, style that is disconcerting but effective: the familiar rhythm of such scenes is maintained while replacing sitcom banality with moments of truly shocking behavior.
Unlike a lot of indie filmmakers who settle into more "mainstream" fare with each passing film, Solondz has grown more experimental since Happiness (Palindromes is just all-around odd, let's admit) and his new film, Life During Wartime, is (apparently) a sequel of sorts, with a whole new set of actors playing the same characters from Happiness. And I can't tell you how excited I am to see Paul Reubens playing the ghost of Jon Lovitz's character from the first film! Bring it on. (August 27 at Tivoli).