Who's In It:
Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciarán Hinds, Gaby Hoffman, Michael Lerner, Chris Marquette, Rich Pecci, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Riley Snyder, Michael K. Williams
The Basics: When last we suffered alongside and simultaneously felt weird about laughing at the miserable families of the tar-black 1998 comedy Happiness, the most sympathetic character of the entire crew was the tormented suburban dad who was also clandestinely drugging and raping his young son's neighborhood friends. That one ended with his capture and imprisonment and the most bizarre onscreen masturbation moment ever committed to film. Well, now the whole gang is back (including the lingering argumentative spirits of a few characters who've committed suicide over the years) and they're even worse off than before, all of them wondering how to move forward, how to erase the past and how not to be sexually assaulted by angry ghosts. Actual happiness is sort off the table as an option.
What's The Deal: Writer-director Todd Solondz is not interested in holding your hand or making you feel good about anything. Ever. He doesn't coddle his characters or the audience. But calling him cruel or mocking (Ally Sheedy's character is a mirthlessly funny and self-absorbed screenwriter frequently accused of those very things) is missing the point of his misanthropic moralism. He rips apart cultural panic over pedophilia and observes the devastating effects on the rapist's own children. (One of them, now a college student, studies incest among monkeys; the other is a heartbreakingly confused boy who cries out for his father and struggles with forgiveness.) He pushes his characters together to find even love even while he sets up implied doomed futures for all of them. Charlotte Rampling's one-night-stand woman, who after having sex with the now-out-of-jail boy-rapist, says, "Only losers expect forgiveness," is the only clear-eyed person in the entire movie.
Casting NotesNone of the actors from Happinessare back. They've been replaced, all the way down the line. Sometimes those actors somewhat resemble the original cast. Sometimes not. It's a continuation of what Solondz did in Palindromes, where he cast multiple actors to play the main role. The effect is to distance you from loving anyone too much, which would upset the unpleasant balance of concern and disdain. And if you're paying a lot of attention, you'll see him nod to this with a poster of Todd Haynes's multiple Bob Dylans movie I'm Not There hanging on a dorm room wall.
Mandatory Viewing: It's not quite enough to have seen Happiness already. You have to go back to Welcome to The Dollhouse and Palindromes, too. That's because Solondz's most beloved victim, Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener, hovers over this movie, as does her father and relentlessly grim brother Mark, who make fatalistic appearances. Mark, in particular, is now now a grown man who crushes dinner conversations with statements like, "In the end China will take over and none of this will matter." His movies are for people who don't mind extra large helpings of agony driving their comedy.