"Sometimes," says Todd Solondz, pausing before his plate of pasta, "people say to me, 'Why do you make such ugly characters?' Well, first of all, they're not ugly to me. I think it says more about the viewer than about me or my films, when I hear that. If you just want a sympathetic character, that's the easiest thing to do. You give them cancer or make them a victim of a terrible crime, and [the audience's] heart goes out to them. It's a major visceral response. But to be able to feel for someone despite their flaws, foibles and failings, this is what makes us more fully human. One moderator introduced me on a panel by saying that I never invite easy sympathy; I think that's true."
In a recent profile of the 38-year-old writer-director, Time magazine shrilled that Solondz's feature debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse, "exuded a deadpan contempt for its characters." Other reviewers had gone so far as to call it "hateful," even "evil." Those folks must find his latest work absolutely diabolical. While Solondz's film Happiness has garnered mostly glowing notices, it's also sealed his reputation as an auteur of millennial cynicism. Even those who haven't found the characters objectionable have found the film's Weltanschauung to be relentlessly dour, hopeless. It's true that Happiness - an arid, arsenic-spiked comedy - presents a universe whose mechanics crush and thwart the titular goal. The film rifles through tabloid issues to get at their essences - reflecting a culture whose inhabitants are isolated, lonely, clumsy at communication and connection, whose desires are mangled in perversion or desperation, or both. It's also a film with an understated but substantial compassion toward its characters. If Dawn, the lead little girl in Dollhouse, grew up to be a filmmaker, Happiness might be the movie she'd make.
"Look," says Solondz about his latest work, his pinched voice rising slightly, "it's a difficult frickin' movie, and it's not for everyone. But I think there most definitely is compassion in this film. And that's where the comedy comes in, the laughter. If those moments weren't in the film, it would be unbearable. That's assuming you're not laughing out of some kind of superiority, which is a terrible kind of laughter - to laugh out of contempt for a character. But if you're laughing because you recognize a kind of truth, that's the best kind. You're saying with your laugh, 'I understand.'"
I tell Solondz that it was on my second viewing of the film that I finally understood my impatience and frustration with Joy, one of the story's three anchors, played by Jane Adams. She's the sister who seems most defenseless in the world, who makes the most glaringly bad choices. It was the glimmer of self-recognition that made her so hard to watch, and that's what makes both of Solondz's films so powerful. Most people go to the movies to watch themselves reflected back as hero or heroine, and Hollywood caters, if not panders, to that desire. Solondz's films let you either recognize the "loser" within, or at least see the world through her eyes. For those in the latter camp, the rush from Solondz's films is that they do what old art-house and foreign films used to: They take you into other worlds, broaden your perspective and emotional/aesthetic/psychological palate. He laughs sympathetically when I tell him I identified with Joy.
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"Oh, no!" he grins. "That's, well, that's . . . You know, I was very emphatic with Jane [Adams] that this character is not dumb. It's very important that we sense that she's not dumb but at sea. She's something of a lost soul. I always felt she would be a way in which audiences could connect to this world, because so many of the other characters are very off-putting. And, in a certain way, I'm very hopeful for her at the end. She's stronger, wiser. She feels a kind of triumph when she dumps the second guy. So, if there's hope for her," he chuckles, "then maybe there's hope for you."