Monday, May 23, 2011

Quick Movie Ratings: Happiness and The Man Who Wasn't There

Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) - 4 Stars (B)

Happiness, directed by Todd Solondz, is a film about painfully flawed relationships that takes us into a territory few filmmakers would dare or indeed wish to delve into. A sloppy, heavy-breathing phone sex fetishist, a mousy New Jersey misfit and a desperate pedophiliac are just a few of the socially scarred, sexually frustrated loners who populate Solondz's film. The intertwining stories (which work in a similar way to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia) present each of the characters as being on a quest in search of happiness in their lives but are seemingly unable to find it. These few moments of happiness are purposely shot in a unique way, extenuating their importance to the character. One such example is when pedophile Dr. Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) first spots a child, Johnny Grasso, at the baseball pitch. The child is shot in sensual slow-motion from the perspective of Maplewood. We are, of course, familiar with the style, but certainly not the context of which it is shot.

Happiness is a dark comedy of highly dysfunctional manners, striking down the conventions of the normal suburban family life and showing the gritty side of a multi-sided spectrum. It also explicitly portrays inappropriate relationships with minors, and has references to depressive alcoholism, and all means of social disorder. But Happiness stresses the issue of the importance of children in America and the fact that they are the future of the country. Bill's wife Trish stresses the importance of education in their children's lives at the dinner table one night. Later in the film, in a scene completely opposed to this, Trish's happy home is broken when Bill drugs his 10-year-old son's schoolmate during an overnight stay and rapes him in his sleep. Dr. Bill Maplewood occupies the point at which the institution of family and individual desire violently collide, with the viewer witnessing his acts as they are unfolding in the present, making the molester as the heart of the viewer's understanding. Happiness can best be described as an indictment of suburban living and the modern American family and their inability to confront such serious problems. The film suggests that perversion lurks around every corner, even within the four walls of family homes. It's extremely confronting and results in uneasy viewing, but it succeeds in drawing a strong emotional response, be it laughter, sympathy or disgust, from every scene.

The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001) - 3 1/2 Stars (B-)

The Man Who Wasn't There, one of the Coen Bros. most overlooked films, tells the story of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber who works with his brother-in-law at the local barbershop, and a man completely dissatisfied with his life. Set in 1949, this film is a reflective journey into the techniques of the 1940's film noir classics. Roger Deakins' beautiful black-and-white cinematography endows the image with shadowy, multi-layered activity, while many scenes are affected by half visible faces and wafting cigarette smoke. Ed is an ordinary American man. He lives in a typical suburban street, has a successful working wife (Francis McDormand), he plays bingo once a week and entertains guests for dinner. Ed's marriage to Doris is just for show, and he suspects she is having an affair with her boss. A shady business investment, which involves blackmailing Doris' boss (James Gandolfini), results in a series of bizarre consequences for Ed.

Despite being tagged as an 'ordinary modern man' and incapable of being a killer by his classy lawyer, the film concludes with Ed's arrest and sentence to the electric chair. He has but one regret; the fact that he will forever only be recognised as 'The Barber'. His chance to become more than a man that no-one noticed, culminate in a doomed investment in a new Sacramento dry-cleaning business. The Man Who Wasn't There is essential viewing, in that it is among every man's dreams to have a happy, successful and continually refreshed life. Failure to have this luxury produces actions capable of leading to 'outcast' status or a feeling of 'invisibility'. This is a very prominent theme in the film and a realistic existence for many people worldwide. 

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