Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays one of the sexually stymied neurotics in Happiness, threatens women over the phone with killer-stud rant (“I want to pump you so hard that … “), and then he freezes, hanging up in terror. Burly, with red hair and glasses, Hoffman, a wonderful actor, specializes in nerds, cut-off young men yearning for connection from inside a heavy shell of unhappiness. You’ll recognize him from Twister, where he was one of the counterculture techies obviously in love with Helen Hunt’s daredevil, and from Boogie Nights, where, again a techie, he declared his love to the porno star Mark Wahlberg. In Happiness, his phone-sex warrior calls women at random, but he also calls the svelte, beautiful writer (Lara Flynn Boyle) who lives down the hall from him in a New Jersey suburban high-rise. He enters her apartment at last – and then can’t squeeze out a word. Happiness, the scandalous American independent film written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse), is, of course, about misery. The characters try to make connections and wind up nowhere; they love the wrong person, the forbidden person; they degrade themselves, destroy other people. The movie has an eager intimacy with the atrocious that is sometimes funny in a deadpan way, sometimes depressing and barbarously cruel. Happiness seesaws between empathy and distaste, between sexual longing and sexual loathing. Solondz draws in close, not just to Hoffman but to everyone; he gives his characters long monologues and, amazingly, gets extraordinary performances and beautiful moments. Then he pulls the rug out, dumping the audience on its rear. Welcome to the dollhouse, indeed.

The movie is a series of malicious vignettes, in raptly quiet and concentrated style – no hysteria, no screaming, no swirling camera. Each scene offers one or another aspect of the alleged anxiety and terror lurking beneath the respectable surface of middle-class life. In Boca Raton, in Florida, a retired couple in their sixties (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), married for 40 years, have nothing left to say to one another. Appalled that he’s in perfect health and has to live on for decades more, Gazzara momentarily falls into the clutches of a predatory Boca widow played by Elizabeth Ashley. Poor Ashley! Solondz turns her croaking voice and hawklike eyes into a mask of death. One might well ask what is so awful about lust in the elderly that it needs to be demonized in this way. But Solondz exposes everyone. He’s like a vengeful adolescent, convinced that anyone who ever bored or angered him was being eaten away by dirty secrets.

Back in New Jersey, the elderly couple owns an apartment, and one of their daughters, Joy (Jane Adams), a scared, talentless girl, lives there by herself. Joy can’t hold a job or a man, but she means no harm, and Jane Adams, who is pretty in a defenseless, Raggedy Anne way, with lank hair and hurt eyes, becomes the movie’s nominal heroine – an infinitely vulnerable creature. Joy, it turns out, is the good sister in a fairy tale. Her older sibling Helen, the slinky writer, longs for emotional violence and “authenticity” – she’s a parody of chic, attitudinizing success, a suburban Kathryn Harrison. The other wicked sister, Trish, played by the gurgling comic actress Cynthia Stevenson, lives happily as an apple-pie-fascist mom, married to what seems to be a solid husband and dad – Bill (Dylan Baker), of the square forehead, a somber householder in his dark psychiatrist’s suit. Bill makes love to his wife but is haunted by demons – he lusts after little boys, perhaps even after his own little boy, Billy, who, at 11, is trying to have his first orgasm. “Have you tried playing with yourself?” his father asks with excruciating solicitude. “Do you want me to show you?”

Let me say quickly that the subject of pedophilia, creepy as it is, doesn’t necessarily fall outside the realm of art. A few years ago, the Canadian film The Boys of St. Vincent made something grave and shocking out of it – a study in grown-up hypocrisy. Solondz goes back and forth: One minute Bill is a troubled, sympathetic man with an unspeakable problem, the next he’s the preposterous and grotesque hero of a sick joke. In his malicious mode, Solondz manages to do what Adrian Lyne didn’t have the courage to do in Lolita: As Bill plots desperately to isolate and drug a visiting little boy, we are placed inside the desire of the violator; the scene is hideously funny. But the result of Bill’s manipulations – a sodomized 11-year-old – is not funny, and the movie comes to a dead stop in a hospital scene in which we are asked to be amused by a detective’s persistent questions.

A bad boy, this Solondz. When the other shoe drops during those long, quiet conversations, the foot within the shoe drops, too. In a restaurant or a living room, one person relates something to another, and Solondz goes right over the top into the perverse. Yet his joking nihilism covers what may be something like sympathy or even solidarity – that’s why one cannot dismiss the movie as nothing more than a nasty game. The actors, obviously with Solondz’s help, find the character inside the vicious deadpan satire. Hoffman does wonders with his sagging belly, his fumbled glasses, his pained smile. Cynthia Stevenson turns housewifely smugness into a niftily rhythmed kitchen patter; Jared Harris, using a lighter Russian accent than John Malkovich’s Stolichnaya special in Rounders, makes something pragmatic yet scuzzily sexual out of the émigré Russian taxi driver whom Joy has an affair with (asked what his profession in Russia was, Harris responds proudly, “I was teef.”)

While appreciating Solondz’s daring and sangfroid, we may also wonder what, finally, he is doing. What does it mean when a cruel movie mocks cruelty? And how can a movie that is clearly erotophobic celebrate an 11-year-old’s first orgasm – and then immediately turn it into a sick joke? Solondz punishes everyone with his own disgust. He brings his frustrated characters together, but no one gets it on but the child-molester and his victims. Quite a joke. The movie offers personal confessions, but Todd Solondz creates drama by pushing dysfunction into pathos – a little boy weeping as he questions his pedophiliac dad.

Aren’t the American suburbs a fairly easy target by now? And who but the fantasists of the Christian right has any remaining illusions about the inviolate nature of the American family? It’s more than a little naïve, I think, to be shocked that people are out for themselves, that family relations can cover self-seeking and competitiveness. Solondz subverts what has already been subverted. The view that middle-class life is poisonous, a sham, is now so pervasive among the American independents (Kids, Buffalo 66, Your Friends and Neighbors) that I have begun to think that it is a substitute for politics. In the absence of any coherent critique of this society, the outsiders are burning themselves up with meaningless rage. Solondz himself is split, unable to decide whether his dysfunctional characters are really holy innocents or just contemptible losers. Happiness is a brilliant, disturbing, but unstable and half-crazy piece of work.

This is the last of my movie columns for this magazine. After twenty years at this stand, I have decided, with some misgivings, to go elsewhere, thereby relinquishing one of the nicer jobs in journalism. I suppose it is far, far too late in the game to reveal to you that I have a love child living in Poughkeepsie, the offspring of an affair with a former New York intern who is now the head of a major international cartel. After all these years, you have already formed a good idea of the value of my judgment. Contrition is out of the question. I speak of misgivings, however, because I can say without blushing that I have never had a bad day at New York magazine. By that, I mean that there were many days when I was not satisfied with my writing but never a day when an editor complained that I was being too tough on a movie or devoting too much space to a little American film or a foreign film or indulging myself by writing too personally, or anything like that.

Of late, a good part of American movie criticism has been engulfed in a tide of selling. The constant pressure to just get with it, to write feature stories and interviews, to join journalistic packages whose essential purpose is to turn movies into super-events (latest example: Beloved) has compromised judgment and demoralized a number of critics and marginalized others. Yet even in this corrupting time, the movie critic of this magazine has been protected: Its traditions, established 30 years ago when New York sprang from the pages of a dying newspaper, have formed a wall around critics, guaranteeing their independence and leaving them no one to blame but themselves when they write badly. Blandness, the dominant tone of corporate accommodation, is not the style among critics of this magazine, and that is true because you, the reader, would not tolerate it. Editors can help critics, but readers give critics and editors confidence in the first place, so I can only offer thanks to you for allowing me to do whatever decent work I have done here; and thanks as well for your continuing to find this increasingly threatened activity valuable, entertaining, even necessary.