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The Atrocity Exhibition

Part One: By now, even if you've never heard of Todd Solondz or his well-received first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, you may be aware that the director's new film, Happiness, has been at the center of one of those imbroglios that are inevitably more important, even urgent, to people inside the movie business than out. In this instance, what makes the scandal more interesting than most is that it involves some weighty trigger words, notably independent film, corporate control and censorship. The official version of the outrage is that October Films, the formerly quasi-independent, New York-based film company that financed Happiness, was forced by its new parent company, Universal - which, in turn, is owned by Seagram Co. Ltd. - to dump the picture shortly after it had its world premiere at the Cannes film festival. Hence, for some, the specter of corporate censorship.

There are a few problems with this version, not least of which is that there is nothing remotely new about companies flexing their corporate prerogative, in regard to independent film or foot powder. Then there is that persistent fiction known as independent film. Independent of what, exactly? The vast majority of films made in this country that are called independent are not, either financially or - far more important - aesthetically. American independent film is nothing if not dependent - on corporate money, bank money, family money, cliche, convention, box-office myth, a parochial sense of cinema history and a catastrophic solipsism. Just as it was in the '30s, '50s and '70s, aesthetic cowardice remains a bigger threat to the movies than corporate censorship.

All of which, more or less, leads us back to Happiness.

Part Two: Written and directed by the 38-year-old Solondz, Happiness opens with some disarming violin-and-accordion ruffling and a credit sequence that immediately brings to mind late Woody Allen. Even the first few shots of a leathery Jon Lovitz and the ashen Jane Adams seem Allen-like, though there's something uncomfortably close and dermatological about the images. "Andy, are you okay?" asks Adams' unkindly named character, Joy, a telemarketer and would-be musician of no discernible talent. "Uh-huh," he grunts softly in return. We are in the middle of a breakup, one of those sad restaurant scenes that are meant to remain discreet, polite. Except that this is no ordinary breakup, it's a Todd Solondz breakup - and as a consequence, it's meaner, nastier and loads funnier, especially since it's not us saying the lines. "Is it someone else?" Andy asks, lips quivering. "No," says Joy, "it's just you."

And so it goes for the rest of the film: Hope and longing are delivered like twins, only to be strangled for maximum hilarity and cruel effect. Joy is just one of the casualties of Solondz's tee-hee-hee psychic slaughter. The others are Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a sweaty, oversexed Dilbert in a suit, and Allen's shrink, Bill (Dylan Baker), a suburban family man who's Joy's brother-in-law as well as a pedophile. As with Woody Allen's movies, there is a seeming legion of other tortuously, at times absurdly, connected characters - including Joy's sisters, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who's married to Bill, and bitchy man-magnet Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), Allen's next-door neighbor and favorite masturbation fantasy. Casting him unmet looks is yet another neighbor, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), a large woman who proudly carries home buckets of ice cream and an oversize cake box and murmurs vague suggestions about the old doorman.

Happiness is being sold as a comedy, and various funny lines and some first-rate sight gags do puncture its petty calamities, missed opportunities, desperate entanglements, grave ironies, deadpan gloom and general smog of despair. Even lines that don't play particularly funny at first ("All this time I thought you were miserable") sound pointedly and satisfyingly funny when delivered by Trish, the smug suburban wife who doesn't yet know that her husband likes to bugger little boys. Of course, later, it's not especially funny when Bill begins to plot his conquests, doping his son's 11-year-old friend for some nocturnal emissions. Though perhaps that's the point. Nor is it particularly funny when Joy sings "Happiness, where are you?" to an unhearing world, or when her father, Lenny (Ben Gazzara), after having left his long-term wife, says to a gravel-voiced divorcee in a flowing, color-coordinated pajama suit, "Yeah, I went to Europe once."

After a while, it's hard not to wonder: What did we do to deserve Todd Solondz? It would be easier to answer this question if it were possible to draw a bead on his intentions, which, however well executed and masterfully rendered - the actors are uniformly superb - remain murky and unfathomable. In a recent profile of Solondz, an interviewer claims that the director presents the pedophile as "a fully rounded character," and that the character's confession to his son (a willfully ugly, uncomfortable scene that probably sent those Universal executives reeling) represents "a sort of ultimate redemption." The interviewer doesn't say what makes the character fully rounded - maybe because he not only fucks kids, he also has a career, a house and a family, and goes to Little League - but the suggestion is that the fledgling auteur has made the pedophile more human than most filmmakers would dare. But that's only partly true: The pedophile is no more and no less human than any other character in Happiness, a film that is finally less interested in what it means to be alive than what it means to be killed frame by frame, joke by joke.

We've seen this sort of murder before, from great, mediocre and terrible American directors. It's something our filmmakers seem to excel at creating; certainly, it's something we excel at consuming. How reassuring, then, to know that it's not just corporate America that is funding the killing anymore. Happiness may be admirably crafted, filled with brave, powerful performances and produced by any number of independent-minded movie people, but it's as dead inside as Armageddon, and not nearly as fun. Instead of bludgeoning us with the newest in technological extremity, Solondz bludgeons us with a numbing progression of human frailties and human cruelties - the latter of his own careful making. At least Jerry Bruckheimer doesn't hate his characters, or his audience; or at least he has the good manners to pretend otherwise. There's nothing new about this sado-cinema - A Clockwork Orange, anyone? - but its seemingly endless escalation in the ranks of America's so-called independents is starting to get me down.

Last year it was Gummo, this year Happiness, with innumerable, senselessly brutal stories in between and doubtless more still to come. Epater les bourgeoisie has become a tic, a badge of honor, a marketing hook. In films from Deconstructing Harry to Nightwatch, outrageousness for the sake of outrageousness replaces any sort of authentic creative growth, daring or ambition. Even a smart, admittedly mean piece of work such as Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors nearly blows it by jewel-casing an unrepentantly, unnecessarily cruel anecdote. Oooh - male rape! Sure, it's rhetorical, but rhetoric seems entirely beside the point when the shock wave is so much louder than the rest of the movie. Worse yet, it's boring. I'm bored - by serial killers and their body counts, warped incest victims and their pain, angry cops and their prey, gangbangers and their hoods. I long for Quentin Tarantino to make a musical, without guns. For Martin Scorsese to abandon his goodfellas, for Ridley Scott to get back to the future, for Kathryn Bigelow to return to the present. I long for Todd Solondz to leave me alone.

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