Another great discovery! A while ago I watched Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness which is anything but; instead, it makes one shudder to think how he’d define Misery. Yet, his craftsmanship is so exquisite that the film is a joy to watch — well, “joy” is actually not quite the right word. In fact, it is singularly ill-suited to describe any emotion the movie might elicit. Discomfort and pain might be more appropriate. However, I do enjoy movies which excel in more than just one category, and “Happiness” certainly fits the bill. Great acting: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stalker who gets off on making obscene phone calls, or Dylan Baker as a pedophile who hides his perverse urges behind a facade of typical family life (he’s a therapist to boot), are just two out of a generally superb cast. Great directing/screenplay: with a story line both amusing and disturbing, Solondz develops his characters so they look real in their attempts to seem “normal” both to themselves and to the world around them. They never turn into caricatures or disgusting monsters, as they easily could have in the hands of a less skilled director. Great cinematography/visual impact: color coordination of wardrobes, interior decor, etc. are far from beautiful and almost hurt your eyes instead. But they are perfectly chosen to add to the sense of twisted pain that makes the viewer cringe and laugh at the same time.
Clearly not for everyone, but a brilliant, extraordinary, and complex film that makes you think.
The same can be said about Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz’s earlier film from 1995. Except this one also displays a tenderness, a vulnerability, that the later movie doesn’t have. “Dollhouse” centers around just one misfit character, Dawn Wiener (an auspicious and dazzling performance by then-12-year-old Heather Matarazzo), who is being teased and ostracized at Junior High School, and who constantly suffers rejection from her overbearing mother who prefers her cutesy, manipulative youngest daughter to awkward Dawn. Nevertheless, Dawn doesn’t come across as the poor victim only. She displays honesty and courage on some occasions, but can be vindictive and full of rage as well — as when she contemplates smashing her little sister’s head with a hammer.. . While it is excruciatingly painful to watch Dawn being harassed, degraded, and bullied (and again, her wardrobe adds an almost physical discomfort), there is enough humor sprinkled throughout the movie to stop it from being only depressing. Not that the funny moments really alleviate the relentless weight that bears down on the viewer; they just ease the pressure enough that one quite willingly makes this trip through hell. It’s worth it, believe me.