Happiness - rated - HOT! HOT! HOT!

Happiness opens deceptively, with chamber music and homely title cards that are reminiscent of the moral tales of MGM Golden Years director Clarence (The Yearling) Brown. It then launched straight into a scene of such emotional cruelty that it takes your breath away. The scene ends, and the title card "Happiness" appears. Now you know what you're in for.

Director Todd Solondz has gathered a group of characters together and tells their stores by intercutting. It's like a Short Cuts for the truly tragic. Each character has their own special kind of hollowness. There's Joy (Jane Adams) whom we meet first, who is a foolish girl caught forever in her own fragility. Everyone else pities her - and that's saying something, because everyone else is equally dysfunctional. There's Joy's sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who gives a beautifully judged performance of sickly-sweet malevolence. Then there's Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful poet who's "living in a state of irony", and actually loathes herself. This character strikes the only wrong note in the cast, I think. She seems like she's wandered in from another movie. Still, it's a minor point: she has the requisite hollowness to qualify as a member of this family.

We also have in the cast a pedophile, an obscene phone caller, a "passionate woman," and a group of older people waiting to die on the golfcourse in Florida. After his doctor tells him he has the heart of an ox and will live to "a hundred", Ben Gazzara says wistfully "So I have more 35 years?" The emptiness is palpable.

This film is so honest, so straightforward and so direct that it shocks. It's amazing that a film can still do that, but this one does. The audience I was part of actually gasped - not at the explicit descriptions of sexual matters, but at the sheer audacity of the director. He says the unsayable. It is truly electrifying. See it, before it is banned. There's talk that it may be pulled from the theatres here in Australia (even though it's near the end of its run). Maybe, as with A Clockwork Orange, pulling it from the theatres could actually boost its future earning power.

Solondz use the question and answer format here several times, brilliantly. In two sequences, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker, in a performance of brilliant blandness - the evil twin of Hugh Beaumont in Leave it to Beaver ) answers his son's questions about masturbation and the size of his penis. He's so wise and calm: "You'll come one day, you'll see," he reassures his son . Then later, echoing these scenes, Bill is subjected to questioning by his son about certain crucial events. The explicitness of the questions makes us extremely uncomfortable - but it is absolutely the same explicitness as we saw in the father/son talks earlier. It is legitimate. It is essential.

That scene between father and son (Rufus Read, absolutely heartbreaking) is one of the most moving scenes in an extremely compassionate film. The director shows all manner of dysfunctional people, and doesn't judge them or allow you to judge them. He seems to be saying that no matter how pathetic you are, there's always someone more pathetic.

Solondz never allows the mood to slip into the maudlin - in fact, if anything, he's a little too assiduous in slipping in the irony when things start becoming a bit sincere. Music is used very carefully to manipulate and temper the mood: music played in scenes in cars stops abruptly when the engine is turned off, or the plug of the radio is pulled. In a scene where Bill Maplewood is trying to manipulate things so that he is alone with his son's little friend, the music from the Nintendo game the boys are playing is at first a homely, fun sound, and then becomes a menacing, frenetic, jarring noise as Solondz heightens the tension.

The film ends with the family around the dinner table, together yet alone. And most alone of all is young Billy, the son. He has an important announcement to make, but his wise and reassuring father is not there to hear it. He may be a monster, but he's also a Dad, and every kid needs a Dad.