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unHappiness at Dinner

by Laura

A seemingly idealistic dinner sees the Jordan parents and the three sisters together for the first time in the film. The conventional veneer is fractured almost immediately as Helen continues telling the family about Pedro’s grisly death. The meal itself is interspersed with moments of awkwardness that reveal underlying tensions: Helen’s laugh at Joy’s suggestion she write about the murder in her building is jarringly loud and meets silence from the rest of the family as well as a bemused Joy. Equally, Helen’s insistence to Trish that the man she’s setting Joy up with is “not for you” stands out: there is real emotion there that flouts social rules (especially in contrast to the placid sociability of Trish).


Indeed, there is particular hostility directed towards Trish, as demonstrated in a seemingly innocuous act when Joy asks for the sweet potatoes to be passed to her. As Trish obligingly begins to lift the dish, her father brusquely takes it out of her hands without looking at her, and passes it in an indirect route down the table. Her faltering smile and momentarily fluttering hands reveal her discomfort – an impression then underlined by the forced brightness in her question “so, did anyone watch Leno last night?”. Met with unyielding silence from the others, this moment demonstrates the gap between the close cheery family Trish clearly strives for, and the warped relationships that populate Solondz’s film. This gap is even more apparent as Trish is the one member of the family who embodies this ideal, endeavouring for a good-natured fulfilment of her roles as housewife and mother, and the presentation of an acceptable public face.


The dinner setting is intercut with shots of Billy masturbating on the balcony: deviant sexuality is thematised in Happiness, and these shots link Billy to his paedophile father Bill while emphasising his absence from the family gathering. Wadenius argues that his decision ‘‘to immediately gratify his urges in plain view on the balcony, regardless of the potential consequences’’ symbolises the toxic influence of his father. This is highlighted in the film’s final moments with Billy’s transgressive announcement to his family that “I came”: “[the family] look back in stunned silence as they realise for the first time that like his father, Billy too, has become a monster’’. This interpretation is accentuated with the Oedipal link between mother and son, when the family dog licks his semen off the balcony rail, then immediately goes inside and licks Trish’s face.


While final scenes generally lead to resolution, this finale defies the neat ending a reunited family would seem to suggest – offering moments of black humour and transgressive relationships instead. In this way Solondz subverts the typical portrait of the suburban nuclear family to create an unsettling film.


(Adam P. Wadenius. ‘The Monstrous Masculine: Abjection and Todd Solondz’s Happiness.’ Wide Screen. Vol 1 no 1. (2009))

Settled in the Unsettling

by Katie Baker

Todd Solondz’s Happiness deals with a large dysfunctional family, taking in pedophilia, sexual obsession, rape and murder along the way. The final scene is a key one, undercutting the conventions of a cinematic family dinner and satirizing the idyllic suburban image.


The family dinner conversation about the murder and the “plastic baggies” displays blatantly how unconventional this dinner really is. Although all family members are adults, the conversational topic is still unusual and strange for typical dinner talk. All members are happy to involve themselves in such disturbing conversation but when Trish attempts to turn the conversation to something lighter “Did anyone see Leno last night?” No one has anything to add and the conversation returns to the bizarre.


Unlike in Storytelling it appears that this family is much more comfortable with the uncomfortable. They can only function successfully in dysfunction and can only converse successfully and fluidly when discussing something out of the ordinary. In the same manner that Scooby attempts to change the familial dynamics of the Livingston family in their dinner table scene, so does Trish in this final scene of Happiness. But in this case it is Trish’s desire to retain some sort of normalcy that upsets the family whereas Scooby’s desire to shake-up the normalcy gets him banned from the dinner table. Whatever the case, in both situations the sibling that attempts to change the comfort of the dinner chatter is the family member that is shunned.


This scene displays that the unsettling is what makes this family settled—and it is exactly that sentiment that displays their satirical nature as a typical suburban family gathered around the dinner table. 

Tension: It's What's For Dinner

by Michelle Robinson

This clip by will be used to explore representations of the family meal in Todd Solondz’s films Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Palindromes, and Storytelling. Students will examine Solondz’s parodies of domestic and family ideals via scenes that depict his characters around the dinner table, an iconic site for representations of the family unit. Additional commentaries will be provided by students in the course “The Film Director as Public Intellectual” at UNC Chapel Hill (Spring 2012).

Happiness - Family Meal

This is the final scene from director Todd Solondz's Happiness, which presents the adults in the Jordan family eating together.

from Happiness (1998)
Creator: Todd Solondz
Distributor: Good Machine
Posted by Michelle Robinson