In his ambitious second film, writer-director Todd Solondz captures a feeling of frustrated yearning -- where happiness seems to exist just beyond the reach of grasping fingertips -- in a group of characters who can't see that what's actually holding them back is themselves.

Joy (Jane Adams) is considered the least successful of the three Jordan sisters, still living in her parents' overdecorated, suburban New Jersey home and pursuing a haphazard music career while immersed in dead-end jobs and even more hopeless relationships. But as Happiness goes on to show in razor-sharp detail, Joy is not -- by far -- the sole lost soul in her orbit.

Cunning and dismissive, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a writer enraptured by her own fame who suspects she's really a fraud and yearns for the "authenticity" of abuse. Helen serves as the primary object of the intense, elaborate and violent sexual fantasy life of her nebbish neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who's painfully accustomed to being ignored by women, yet dismisses the tenuous advances of Kristina (Camryn Manheim), whose coiled fury more than matches his own.

The chirpy Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) smugly believes she has achieved the perfect, apple-pie American family life with her psychiatrist husband, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), and three children. But as their eldest, 11-year-old Billy (Rufus Read), is beginning to pose serious questions about his burgeoning sexuality, Solondz gradually reveals what lurks behind Bill senior's stoic, noncommittal therapist's mask: a pedophile.

Todd Solondz achieves something eerie and surprisingly resonant with Happiness. His emotionally stunted characters stumble through a world that epitomizes a bland, passionless monotony of existence. This flatness, in part, distances the audience on an emotional level, yet it allows sharp jolts of empathetic awareness to pierce the jaded surface.

Don't worry, Solondz says with a reassuring nod and a wink, they're just us.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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