Longing for Happiness

By Tim Winterstein

Sometimes you watch a bunch of movies in a row and the same actor appears in all of them; like that time I watched probably five movies in a row with Benicio del Toro (or the Puerto Rican Brad Pitt, as I like to think of him—or maybe Brad Pitt is the North American Benicio del Toro.) Anyway.

Other times, it’s not actors but themes that start to appear and coalesce from more than one movie.  So I watched two movies in consecutive nights that deal with the relationships between parents and children.  The first, with a father and a daughter, was Toni Erdmann, a nearly three-hour German comedy (yes, really, a funny German film).  The second, with a mother and son, was 20th Century Women, a sort of inverted coming-of-age film that takes place in Southern California in 1979 (based semi-autobiographically on writer/director Mike Mills’ own childhood).  If I were going to pick a favorite, it would be 20th Century Women, simply for the brilliance of Annette Bening—maybe just for the brilliance of her facial expression throughout the film.

And while these are very different films, they both circle around the struggle to be happy.  There are conversations between parent and child in both films dealing with whether or not either of them are happy.  Jamie asks his mother, Dorothea (played by Bening), whether she is as happy currently as she thought she would be when she was his age.  She tells him that’s not a question to ask your mother.  But then she becomes anxious about whether Jamie himself is happy and she enlists the reluctant help of Abbie, who rents an upstairs room, and Julie, Jamie’s closest friend, to help him grow up into manhood.

Julie asks, understandably, whether or not it shouldn’t be a man helping him become a man, but Dorothea says she doesn’t believe that’s necessary. Things start to go beyond what Dorothea expects when Abbie and Julie (who aren’t convinced of their own maturity and who certainly aren’t without multiple problems of their own) begin to take their assignment seriously and start feeding Jamie books about feminism and sex.

Dorothea certainly isn’t pleased when Abbie, in an uncomfortable and hilarious scene at the dinner table, encourages all the men in the room to say “menstruation,” instructing and correcting them in their embarrassment, reluctance, and doubt, while Dorothea keeps trying to put an end to the conversation. But Dorothea ends up as something of a surrogate mother to both Abbie and Julie because of strained relationships with their own mothers. The fathers are few and far between for any of the characters, and there’s really only one prominent male character: another boarder named William, played by Billy Crudup.

On the other hand, Ines Conradi (played with tired exasperation by Sandra Hüller) is estranged by work and distance from both her parents, but it’s her father, Winfried, who—prompted by the death of his beloved dog, Willi—decides to travel to Bucharest and reconnect with her. She, however, is not amused by his jokes and characters, particularly the one with the bad teeth. They stumble through an awkward weekend, where he makes connections that she is not able to, partly fueled by the sexism of a CEO who asks Ines not for help in her area of expertise, but to take his wife shopping. Winfried finally leaves in a taxi and Ines, overcome by her loneliness, sobs on the balcony.

But Winfried is not really gone, and he reappears with his buck-teeth and a long-haired black wig as Toni Erdmann, a life-coach for CEOs.  Despite his best efforts, Winfried (as my brother put it) doesn’t really know how to show his love for Ines (he gives her a cheese grater for her birthday).  And everything he does backfires or makes things worse for Ines in her job.  What he really wants to know is if she’s happy.  Does she have any fun?  She can barely understand the question, but what he’s really asking is whether all her stress and hard work is actually worth anything.

Finally, she is willing to incorporate his alter ego into her work trying to retain a big-name client. She plays along, and it seems like they’ve moved past the biggest obstacle in their relationship. But his constant pushing for her to relax and have some fun brings her to the end of her patience with his schtick. After one of the greatest scenes in the movie (Ines belting out Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in front of a gaping family of Romanian strangers), she runs down the stairs, leaving behind her father, who seems to have failed for the last time to win her over.

It’s hard to explain what follows in this long movie that really doesn’t feel like its length—much better to experience it for yourself. I will say that although the penultimate scene contains full nudity, it’s hilarious in its shock and touching when Winfried shows up with his last and best disguise. (And, perhaps, this is the point to warn the viewer that there is one other scene of, to me, unnecessary and graphic not-quite-sex. You won’t be missing anything if you skip it, which I wish I had!)

But even if this film were not as filled with funny and awkward scenes orchestrated by Winfried, the final five minutes is worth the time invested.  Ines had  earlier asked her father what he was living for, noting that she knew lots of people his age who had ambitions. Here Winfried reveals what every parent knows: no matter how many people tell young parents to enjoy the time they have, to live in the moment, and to take note of the small things, it never quite works that way.  It turns out that by the time you think about enjoying life, life has mostly passed you by, whether you enjoyed it or not.

Which leads me back to Dorothea and Jamie and whether either of them are happy.  Perhaps those who think the most about whether they’re happy are the least happy.  If you’re asking the question, you’re probably not. And if you’re aiming at happiness, you’ll miss the very things that make you happy. As Winfried discovers, maybe it’s not until one’s life is nearly over that such things can be evaluated—and maybe not even then.

But the question about happiness is mostly occasioned by the disasters kindled by these characters in their families. These are displaced people who are completely unmoored, especially in 20th Century Women. How we navigate these “modern times” can be a hackneyed question, but the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s offers a perfect setting to examine progress, whether in technology, consumption, or the family. What, actually, is a family?  And Dorothea’s half-completed house becomes a metaphor for a family—and a life—constantly under renovation.  There’s a lot of “if only we knew that back then,” but there’s no sense that anyone would have (or should have) done anything differently.  I think the struggles of Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie, Julie, and William resonate with so many people because like them we have, for the most part, cut the cords that would have bound us to the past.  Without those diachronic connections, the synchronic connections between people seem more tenuous than ever.

Both films want to be optimistic, even hopeful, about what comes next. But there’s a hopelessness pervading the closing scenes that leaves an emotional gap.  Ines is left alone, waiting for her father to get his camera, and the viewer is left asking whether she is going to be happy now. More than that, the viewer is left to ask whether he or she is or can be truly happy.  By what measure would one possibly answer that question?

At the end of 20th Century Women, Dorothea imagines another life, where she meets Humphrey Bogart and he knows what she’s thinking and makes her laugh and he really sees her and he does what he says he will do. Jamie says that he sounds nice, and then, in voiceover, he says that he likes to think that those moments with his mother would inaugurate a new phase in their relationship where she told him things. But maybe, he muses, it was never really like that again; maybe that was it.

Even so, Dorothea (whom Jamie says is impossible to describe to his own son) lives a life to the limits of human ability, and Bening plays it beautifully.  The temptation is to decide with both of these films that this is all we’ve got, so live it up. Live in the struggles, live in the ups and downs, live in the beautiful, burdened, damaged relationships that make up our world. But that is easier said than done; easier displayed in the tragicomic lives that make up a film than actually lived in the tragicomic relationships that make up a life.

Finally, both these films (and, seriously, Annette Bening is masterful) ask profound and true questions to which the characters themselves are unable to give any real answers. Can Christianity do better? No doubt, we’ll want to immediately say yes. But in our current culture, where Christian hope has been thinned to a less-than-substantial gruel of escapism, what can we actually offer? If it’s only self-improvement for this world, and then what comes next is flying around with super-human angels while we do the things we always liked doing here, what’s the point?  Notice how little God, let alone Jesus, even enters our pictures of dying and going to heaven. And if Christianity is just one more thing to add to my life so I can be happy here and now, no wonder we have to sell it so hard in the marketplace of all the other things that claim to make you happy.

Perhaps, though, the overwhelming weight of glory that’s been prepared for us to supersede this light and temporary affliction is not escapist at all, but creatively and completely restorative. Perhaps C.S. Lewis was on to something when he came to believe that the brief and intermittent joy he experienced in his life up to that point could not be fully satisfied in his life at any point. Only a joy that takes in and subsumes all other brief happinesses; only a joy that brings about the fulfillment of everything good while bringing all evil and sadness to a full and complete end; only a joy centered in the Man Jesus, who promises that His family will restore families lost in this age—that is, only a full-throated, resurrection, new-creation joy provides a truly Christian answer to what people claim to be seeking.

None of this, of course, is a guarantee that anybody will want or believe the Christian claim, though Christians believe it fills the hole left by our self-exile from our Creator. But if Christian faith, hope, and love can’t offer anything at least as three-dimensional and substantial as the questions and problems of the characters in these films, then it’s not surprising that what’s never tried is rejected—or, more probably, simply ignored. If what I believe of the Christian faith is not more fully human than these very human stories, then it might not actually be the Christian faith.