Todd Solondz’s Happiness was greeted with controversy upon its 1998 release thanks to its empathetic portrait of a suburban husband and father of three who has a deviant taste for young boys. Detached from the hubbub, however, it’s harder to discern the actual objection to Solondz’s approach to this, the most incendiary of his sophomore effort’s various narrative strands, as his treatment exhibits an almost pitch-perfect balance between condescension and compassion, a mode that the director employs throughout his ironically titled tapestry of misery. Solondz’s familiarity with his New Jersey milieu lends legitimacy to his mostly appalling characterizations, though his gift is one of tone, as immediately evidenced by an opening date between quiet, nervous Joy (Jane Adams) and boyfriend Andy (Jon Lovitz) that careens emotionally to both devastating and hilarious effect. Whether with regards to Joy, her happy homemaker sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and pretentious literary star sibling Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), or phone sex pervert Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and pedophile Bill (Dylan Baker), the filmmaker finds a way to look down upon his characters while still retaining a measure of understanding for their alienated torment. Cheap laughs and disturbing desolation somehow prove ideal bedfellows in Happiness, whether in the sight of overweight confessed murderer Kristina (Camryn Manheim) retreating from her gruesome deeds by scarfing down ice cream sundaes, or recently separated Lenny (Ben Gazzara) responding to the company of his awful family by deliberately ignoring doctor’s orders and suicidally drenching his meal in salt. Solondz’s bleak worldview is at once amusing and horrifying, and in its climactic confessional conversation between Bill and his young son, the film expresses a wrenching, nightmarish agony over human nature.