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Happiness glows in the dark


If you crave dark comedy, you'll savor Happiness, winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1998 Cannes film festival. But beware, this sharply written and directed Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) film is not for the weak of heart or stomach.

Happiness revolves around three New Jersey sisters -- unsuccessful singer Joy (Jane Adams); brittle author Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle); and deliriously deluded housewife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). Joy, Helen and Trish pursue Happiness as if the condition were an inalienable right. But their goal doesn't matter as much as their journey and the strange and unforgettable people they meet along the way.

After Joy dumps suitor John Lovitz, it surprises no one that this particular worm turns and dumps a major curse on Joy and all her kin. Joy attracts disaster like ships called "unsinkable." Everything that follows seems designed to show the curse is working, but is it really the curse? Maybe it's just the relatives.

Seemingly self-assured sister Helen cannot accept her own success. Plagued by self-loathing, she pursues an unsatisfying relationship with an obscene phone caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with problems of his own.

Trish cultivates obliviousness. She cheerfully ignores the fact that her psychoanalyst husband (Dylan Baker) sexually molests his son's friends. Baker delivers a top-notch performance that draws you inside the husband's struggle and failure to control his urges. But the subject remains so disturbing, his performance becomes almost impossible to watch.

Camryn Manheim, an overweight neighbor who harbors a cold secret, will make you laugh so hard, you'll cry. Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser, the sisters' unloving parents, round out a first-rate cast. Even Marla Maples shines in the role of a divorced real estate agent.

Full of highs and very low lows, Happiness alternates between funny, sad and gross. But the sisters' basic goodness ennobles the movie, even when the situation takes a turn towards the despicable. Some scenes will horrify you, but if you stick with it and roll with it, Happiness becomes your reward

Joan Fuchsman