The film centers on the lives of three dysfunctional sisters, and the dysfunctional people around them. First of all, there's Joy (Jane Adams), who starts out the movie with a painful breakup with her latest loser boyfriend (Jon Lovitz).
Joy's sister, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), is an outwardly successful woman, beautiful and intelligent. That's probably what attracts the attention of her neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the obscene phone caller next door.
And finally, there's Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a naive housewife married to Allen's therapist, Bill (Dylan Baker). Bill has his own problems: he's a compulsive pedophile serial rapist. But, he still tries to be a good dad to his son, while lusting after his son's young friends. And these are just a few of the sympathetic characters you'll meet in Happiness.
A problem with Happiness is often a problem in ensemble stories like this. Some of the plotlines are considerably less intersting than the others. A good ensemble work needs balance...Happiness just seems desperately uneven.
Surprisingly (or, well, maybe not that surprisingly) the film's most disturbing characters are also its most interesting. Heading out the pack is Dylan Baker's serial rapist. He's certainly not the type of guy you'd want to spend too much time with, but he's fascinating to watch...there certainly hasn't been another character quite like this one before. And then there's the insecure Allen, wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's so pathetic he's alternately frightening and endearing.
In comparison, plotlines like the romantic travails of Joy, or the separation of the sisters' parents seem hopelessly conventional and bland. The film establishes its own peculiar rhythm, but then constantly loses it every time it trudges back to the mundane.
That said, even the interesting characters and plotlines here aren't for everyone (if you couldn't tell just by the descriptions). Happiness is a film that revels in depravity, and is definitely not a movie for the easily offended (and perhaps many of the not-so-easily offended).
The movie is a mixed bag of unusual treats. Some are quite good, some are quite bad, but you can be assured that you've never seen an assortment quite like this before.
[NC-17] (Good Machine)