Happiness starring Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson & Lara Flynn Boyle; with Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Dylan Baker, Camryn Manheim & Philip Seymour Hoffman; directed by Todd Solondz; (1998)
25th Hour starring Edward Norton; with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin & Brian Cox; directed by Spike Lee; (2002)
On April 19, I attended my first CinemaLit screening at the Mechanics' Institute. The film screening that evening was:
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead starring Philip Seymour Hoffman & Ethan Hawke; with Albert Finney & Marisa Tomei; directed by Sidney Lumet; (2007)
Todd Solondz is a director who likes to push buttons with his films. His films Welcome to the Doll House (1995) and Palindromes (2004) are particularly infamous. I would discover Happiness has a bitterly ironic title.
Happiness focuses on the three Jordan sisters - Trish Maplewood née Jordan (Cynthia Stevenson), the eldest sister who is married, has two sons and lives in the suburbs; Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), a beautiful and successful author whose enviable sexacapades leave her unfulfilled; and youngest sister Joy Jordan (Jane Adams), an aimless sort who drifts from job to job and is pitied and looked down upon by her sisters and parents. Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara play Mona & Lenny Jordan, the parents who are getting divorced after 40 years of marriage.
Having not seen any of Solondz's films before, I am now quite eager to see them after viewing Happiness. In fact, Happiness has a sequel called Life During Wartime (2009) with different actors in the all the roles. Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy & Shirley Henderson play the three sisters in Life During Wartime.
Happiness did horribly at the box office and I'm not surprised. Receiving an NC-17 rating for a plotline dealing with pedophilia, Happiness surrendered its NC-17 rating and was released unrated which meant limited advertising and distribution. However, there is a lot more subversive things going on with Happiness than its darkly humorous depictions of pedophilia, murderers and prepubescent sexuality.
The film begins with Joy breaking up with her boyfriend (Jon Lovitz). In only the first scene of the 140 minute film, Lovitz plays against type and launches into an anguished diatribe against Joy and his own self-perceived shortcomings in appearance and social status. It's uncomfortable to watch because there is some truth in his words. In addition, Lovitz nails the scenes and kicks off the film with a great monologue that's funny, painful and angry.
Any plot summary could not do Happiness justice. Hoffman is not even in the "A story" except tangentially. Hoffman plays Allen, a man with feelings of inadequacy which he shares with his therapist, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), Trish's husband. Although he doesn't receive considerably more screen time than the rest of the cast, I found Maplewood's story the most compelling and Baker's performance the most fascinating. Maplewood is a pedophile. The high point of the film is an extended scene where Maplewood's son Billy (Rufus Read) has invited a friend, Johnny Grasso, for a sleepover. Maplewood finds Grasso irresistible and drugs the household so he can have his way with the unconscious boy. Solondz is able to inject a fair amount of humor in what would otherwise be a chilling scene of a child predator.
Solondz kicks the awkwardness up a notch by having Billy becoming aware of his own sexuality and asking his father pointed questions about male anatomy and bodily functions such as ejaculations. Maplewood answers his son's questions with patience and love which seems incongruous with his sexual predilections. Indeed, after charges are filed and his behavior becomes known to the neighborhood and within his family, Billy is hurt that his father would have sex with other boys before his own son. In an emotional moment Billy asks his father "Would you ever fuck me?" His father responds "No, I'd jerk off instead." The written word cannot convey the dark humor of that scene. It's absurd and grotesque; I laughed but wondered if my laughter was appropriate...then I wondered if that was exactly the reaction Solondz was hoping to achieve.
Hoffman's Allen lusts for his next door neighbor, Helen Jordan. Unable to work up the courage to ask her out because he fears rejection (with good reason), Allen takes to calling Helen and engaging her in obscene polemics. This arouses Helen. Using *69 and auto callback functions, Helen turns the tables on Allen. Anxious to meet her verbal abuser, Helen become the pursuer and Allen is still fearful of revealing his identity. Meanwhile, Allen is also pursued by the mousy Kristina (Camryn Manheim), another neighbor in the building. Seemingly more of a fit for Allen in terms of appearance and temperament, Allen & Kristina share some intimate moments including the fact that Kristina has murdered the doorman and dismembered the remains.
By comparison, Joy's story line is much more mundane. A scab teacher at a immigrant education school, Joy begins a relationship with one of her students, Vlad (Jared Harris). Vlad turns out to be married and a thief. Eventually, Joy has to buy her stolen belongings back from Vlad.
Happiness is a beautifully made film about very ugly behavior and that dichotomy is what makes Happiness a great film. The film ends on an up note though. The sexually awakening Billy has had trouble achieving masturbatory climax throughout the film. At his grandparents' condo (they've unhappily reconciled), he leaves grownups inside while he goes out on the balcony and spies an attractive woman. In laudable fashion, he proudly achieves onanistic success while leaving much of his ejaculate on the railing...which the family dog quickly laps up. There's your happy ending!
25th Hour is Edward Norton's film. Hoffman has a supporting role as Norton's friend from childhood. Norton plays Monty, a drug dealer awaiting sentencing. On his last night of freedom, he invites his girlfriend and two best friends to party with him at a club. Hoffman plays Jacob, a English teacher at the prep school Monty & Jacob attended. Barry Pepper is Frank, a Wall Street trader and fellow classmate. Rosario Dawson is Naturelle, Monty's live-in girlfriend.
Monty's sense of fear & mistrust are representative of the time period it was made. 25th Hour was filmed in NYC during the months after 9/11. Someone set Monty up because the cops knew exactly where his stash was. Monty suspects Naturelle but isn't sure. He's also worried that the Russian mobsters he is dealing for will kill him before he can cut a deal...which he isn't considering.
The high point of 25th Hour is an extended monologue by Norton as he is facing himself in the mirror. He reads it with the cadence and meter of a Beat poem. It earned a round of applause from the theater audience when Norton finished. I was impressed by it.
Yeah, fuck you, too. Fuck me? Fuck you.
Fuck you and this whole city and everyone in it.
Fuck the panhandlers, grubbing for money, and smiling at me behind my back.
Fuck the squeegee men dirtying up the clean windshield of my car - get a fucking job!
Fuck the Sikhs and the Pakistanis bombing down the avenues in decrepit cabs, curry steaming out their pores stinking up my day. Terrorists in fucking training. SLOW THE FUCK DOWN!
Fuck the Chelsea boys with their waxed chests and pumped-up biceps. Going down on each other in my parks and on my piers, jingling their dicks on my Channel 35.
Fuck the Korean grocers with their pyramids of overpriced fruit and their tulips and roses wrapped in plastic. Ten years in the country, still no speaky English?
Fuck the Russians in Brighton Beach. Mobster thugs sitting in cafés, sipping tea in little glasses, sugar cubes between their teeth. Wheelin' and dealin' and schemin'. Go back where you fucking came from!
Fuck the black-hatted Chassidim, strolling up and down 47th street in their dirty gabardine with their dandruff. Selling South African apartheid diamonds!
Fuck the Wall Street brokers. Self-styled masters of the universe. Michael Douglas, Gordon Gekko wannabe mother fuckers, figuring out new ways to rob hard working people blind. Send those Enron assholes to jail for FUCKING LIFE! You think Bush and Cheney didn't know about that shit? Give me a fucking break! Tyco! Worldcom!
Fuck the Puerto Ricans. Twenty to a car, swelling up the welfare rolls, worst fuckin' parade in the city. And don't even get me started on the Dom-in-i-cans, 'cause they make the Puerto Ricans look good.
Fuck the Bensonhurst Italians with their pomaded hair, their nylon warm-up suits, their St. Anthony medallions, swinging their Jason Giambi Louisville Slugger baseball bats, trying to audition for "The Sopranos."
Fuck the Upper East Side wives with their Hermès scarves and their fifty-dollar Balducci artichokes. Overfed faces getting pulled and lifted and stretched, all taut and shiny. You're not fooling anybody, sweetheart!
Fuck the uptown brothers. They never pass the ball, they don't want to play defense, they take five steps on every lay-up to the hoop. And then they want to turn around and blame everything on the white man. Slavery ended one hundred and thirty seven years ago. Move the fuck on!
Fuck the corrupt cops with their anus-violating plungers and their 41 shots, standing behind a blue wall of silence. You betray our trust!
Fuck the priests who put their hands down some innocent child's pants.
Fuck the church that protects them, delivering us into evil.
And while you're at it, fuck J.C.! He got off easy! A day on the cross, a weekend in hell, and all the hallelujahs of the legioned angels for eternity! Try seven years in fuckin' Otisville, J.!
Fuck Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and backward-ass cave-dwelling fundamentalist assholes everywhere. On the names of innocent thousands murdered, I pray you spend the rest of eternity with your seventy-two whores roasting in a jet-fuel fire in hell. You towel-headed camel jockeys can kiss my royal Irish ass!
Fuck Jacob Elinsky. Whining malcontent.
Fuck Francis Xavier Slaughtery my best friend, judging me while he stares at my girlfriend's ass.
Fuck Naturelle Riviera, I gave her my trust and she stabbed me in the back, sold me up the river, fucking bitch.
Fuck my father with his endless grief, standing behind that bar sipping on club sodas, selling whisky to firemen, and cheering the Bronx Bombers.
Fuck this whole city and everyone in it. From the row-houses of Astoria to the penthouses on Park Avenue, from the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in Soho. From the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope to the split-levels in Staten Island. Let an earthquake crumble it, let the fires rage, let it burn to fucking ash and then let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place.
No. No, fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away, you dumb fuck!
Another interesting aspect of the film is the role of Anna Pacquin. She plays Mary, a rebellious student of Jacob whom he is sexually attracted to. Able to keep his feelings in check, Jacob is surprised to see the underage Mary at the club where Monty's farewell bash is being held. The role reminded me a lot of Pacquin's role in Margaret which was filmed in 2005 in NYC.
25th Hour isn't a bad film. It suffered in comparison to Happiness. Episodic in nature, the film features a lot interesting performances. Retired NFLer Tony Siragusa and Isiah Whitlock Jr. have memorable scenes. The story never quite came together and the ending was disappointing.
The Mechanics' Institute Library (57 Post St. San Francisco) is a great institution. Primarily consisting of a private library and chess room, the library also hosts a CinemaLit Film Series most Friday nights although my recollection is that takes a hiatus during the summer months. The series are programmed by Michael Fox. When I joined the Mechanics Institute Library a few years ago, it was my intention to play chess & go to CinemaLit on a regular basis. Neither has occurred.
As I mentioned, this was my first CinemaLit screening. I won't say it will be my last but I will say that the screening venue is horrible. Held in a fourth floor meeting room, the 6 PM start time and insufficient blinds and curtains ensured that exterior sunlight would leak in. Street noises were also noticeable and the wooden floors echoed footsteps. Upon entering, I wondered where the film projectors were but I was too optimistic. The images were from a BlueRay DVD and a ceiling mounted projector. The screen was a little small for the room but by that point I had adjusted my expectation downwards.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a film I have long wanted to see. It was director Sidney Lumet final film and he went out with a bang. Told in non-chronological fashion, the film reveals layer upon layer of family dynamics and dysfunctions.
Nanette Hanson is shot by a robber at her jewelry store. In a coma, her family gathers around her. Her eldest son is Andy (Hoffman) and her younger son is Hank (Ethan Hawke). I think there was a daughter who didn't have any or many line. Nanette's husband is Charles (Albert Finney). Andy's wife Gina is played by the ever reliable Marisa Tomei.
It is gradually revealed that Andy & Hank planned the robbery. Andy has been embezzling money from his employer and needs cash to pay it back or flee the country. Hank needs money to pay his alimony & child support payments. A weak willed type, Hank enlists the help of an accomplice to carry off the robbery. Hank is the getaway driver but unbeknownst to him his accomplice has a gun and not only that but his parents keep a gun at the store. Nanette and the robber shoot each other; Nanette temporarily survives, the robber dies.
Everything starts going off the rails. Charles decides to pull the plug on his wife which sends his sons (particularly Hank) into a guilt-ridden funk. The wife of the accomplice demands money from Hank as compensation for his death. An audit is taking place at Andy's workplace and his embezzlement is slowly coming to light. He can't spare time to go into the office to resolve it because of his mother's funeral, keeping a lid on his younger brother and marital discord with Gina who is deeply unhappy in her marriage. She is so unhappy that she has been having an affair with her brother-in-law Hank. Did I mention that Andy has a heroin addiction?
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead adds plot twist after plot twist. By revealing them in non-linear fashion, the viewer reexamines previous scenes as the motivation of each character is revealed to have ulterior considerations. Filled with uniformly excellent performances, Hoffman is first among equals. Andy goes from seemingly considerate husband to a murderous rampage. The rage and long-held resentments of his character is always just the surface and Hoffman conveys this seething frustration effortlessly.
Many film critics rated Before the Devil Knows You're Dead among their Top 10 of 2007. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Happiness are among the best films I've seen to date this year.