If he were half the incisive social critic he thinks he is, one could make a case for Todd Solondz. In an age when such films as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno adjust their characters’ neuroses into palatable “eccentricities,” a healthy dose of authentically savage, dark humor would serve American independent film well in challenging liberal complacency and political correctness. Given the infrequent cinematic output of Terry Zwigoff, bitter, parodic, button-pushing misanthropy is rarely represented at the local art house. But Solondz has not helped fill the void. If anything, he precipitated it.
When in 1998 Happiness became a succès de scandale for its black comedy of pedophilia, suicide, antisocial behavior, masturbation, divorce, murder, and, of course, the superficial normalcy of the American suburbs, it also tested the limits of audience self-satisfaction: how far would viewers go to prove themselves above it all? Because besides one or two instances of complicating viewer identification with the sickest and most twisted of characters—most notably Dylan Baker’s disturbingly sympathetic child rapist—Happiness offered a newly perfected form of ingratiating freakshow cinema, riding the then-current wave of shock entertainment (a year earlier had seen the release of Gummo and South Park) designed not to upset and provoke thought, but to create exclusive in-clubs of those who could take it and those who could not. Happiness titillated more than it alienated, and the Alan Balls and Diablo Codys of the world eventually took notice, exploiting what they could of its stereotype-dependent topicality by melodramatizing or else sweetening it, and they ultimately repackaged the bile as feel-good sentimentality or “look closer” profundity. Read Michael Joshua Rowin’s review of Life During Wartime.