As Shirley Henderson’s Joy admits to feeling “a little déjà vu” during a wretched dinner-table break-up, you might ask: is Todd Solondz repeating himself to a point of indulgence?
After five acid-coms, US indie’s doyen of dysfunction stages a semi-sequel to 1998’s Happiness, revisiting its melancholic menagerie. But his maturing capacities for satire, compassion and storytelling shape the (entirely recast, incidentally) dramedy as half-sequel, half-corrective revision, cutting almost as sharp, deep and sure. But not much happier.
Repetition doubles as theme and device, Solondz rebooting old set-ups to probe behavioural patterns in the fallout of emotional devastation. Happiness’ three sisters fill the frontline. Joy still picks the wrong men. Helen (Ally Sheedy) remains brittle about her success. And Trish (Allison Janney) struggles to find love after her hubby’s conviction for kiddie-fiddling.
Ground prepped for Solondz-ian satire, the director delivers but adds balancing elements of empathy. In particular, Trish’s attempt to describe the erotic blossoming of her elbow to her 12-year-old son is a masterclass in comic discomfort.
Tart, lethally scripted, two-handed vignettes take the plot’s strain, precisely pinpointing the slippages between and reasons for characters’ concealments and revelations. Hitting every slippery note head-on, the cast render these muddled people understandable, if not always likeable: Janney juggles despair with forlorn hope, Charlotte Rampling grabs a brief cameo by the jugular and Dylan Riley Snyder pairs hurt with eagerness.
Emotional quick-fixes aren’t offered but the ramifications of emotional damage are faced unflinchingly, culminating in a moving finale that makes this quasi-sequel close to Happiness’ equal. A threequel in 2020? You’re on, Todd.
Part painfully funny, part just painful and soul-searching, Solondz’s sixth feature is a sequel played as self-interrogation, tackling old terrain with the benefit of hindsight and the sure sting of conviction.