WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
And this is a Signature Series DVD...how?
When I heard that Lion's Gate planned to rerelease Todd Solondz's deeply disturbing film Happiness as part of its Signature Series collection, I got all warm and tingly, anticipating a nice new anamorphic-widescreen transfer and some enriching supplemental material. Surely, the new disc would offer a director commentary and perhaps a featurette about the film's dark concerns. What I have in my DVD player right now is a terribly disappointing repackaging of the original Trimark release.
If you're not familiar with Happiness, you're in for a nasty treat. Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) has fashioned a cruel tale of irony and inner torment the likes of which you might never have seen. Contrary to the film's title, Happiness is a bleak experience, full of angry, repressed, mean, desperate, awful people. You might be thinking that I'm warning you away from the film, but quite the contrary—Happiness is intense and darkly fascinating and will stay with you like emotion.
Happiness comprises several interlocking stories, all connected to the very different lives of three sisters. Joy (Jane Adams) is a lonely and decidedly joyless woman who is utterly lost in her desire to find a good man and a fulfilling life. She aspires to the domestic success of her older sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who is living the blissful American-yuppie dream—a nice suburban home, a loving husband, and 2.5 children. Then there's Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), successful poet uncomfortable with the artifice of sudden wealth. But there's a strange undercurrent of depravity—a David Lynchian throb of menace and despair—under all the stories. Helen, for example, fulfills an unspoken, somewhat hideous desire by responding to the carnal depravity of her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a sickeningly repressed sociopath who finds sexual release in making obscene phone calls. And we soon find that Trish's life is not as wonderful as it seems on its surface: Her husband Bill (Dylan Baker, in an amazing and brave performance) is a psychiatrist with a terrible secret that ultimately involves his son.
Happiness is concerned with peeking beneath the surface of American life—also recalling Lynch. Watching these people interact, seeing the silently gutwrenching scenes play out, you feel a hollowness at the pit of your stomach, at once sickened by the disgusting impulses and actions of the characters, and fascinated by the blunt portrayal of them. And again, you're probably thinking, Why the hell would I want to watch this? But the truth is that despite the ugliness of these characters' personae, you actually come to feel empathy for them. These people are not the hideous creatures that I've outlined here. They're real people that the film deals with sympathetically, and you might even relate to some of these characters' characteristics and idiosyncrasies. Is it possible that there's a little bit of monster in you? Or your friends? Or your parents? To me, that's an amazing achievement on the part of Solondz. And it's what makes Happiness such a rewarding experience.
A final note: Solondz refused to cut his film to secure an R rating, so Happiness was distributed in its original form.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Lion's Gate presents Happiness in the same old non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that the Trimark disc contained. This is not to say that this is a terrible transfer—in fact, it's fairly acceptable for a non-anamorphic effort. But come on, get with the times. This image could look so much better. As it is, once I've stretched this baby to fit my screen, I'm left with a fair amount of artifacting, including shimmering, blocking, mosquito noise, and aliasing. Colors are drab—perhaps intentionally to suit the subject matter. Blacks are suitably deep. Detail is only acceptable. Through the entire film, you'll only be thinking how much finer an anamorphic transfer would look.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 2.0 track is front-heavy, which is fine for this dialog-centric film. However, even across the front, it's not particularly full, feeling hollow and somewhat flat.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
You get the same extras that graced the original Trimark DVD—namely, a full-frame Theatrical Trailer and some short text Bios that reach only through 1999 (when the original Trimark DVD came out). Boo!
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Lion's Gate has repressed the original DVD release of Happiness and simply slapped on a Signature Series label. In my book, that constitutes a form of false advertising. Avoid this release.