As the film opens, Jonah and Maggie are in the process of buying their first home, picking out one that feels perfect to start a family. They move in, riding a wave of satisfaction at opening the next chapter in their lives. But it doesn't last. Days after moving in, the newspaper where Jonah works makes job cuts, his position among them. They try to muddle through and hold on to their dream. Maggie picks up a waitressing gig to supplement her daycare job, and Jonah tries desperately to find work and renegotiate the terms of their mortgage, to no avail. And trying to compete in a dying industry and a saturated job market, his opportunities are severely limited. After a particularly humiliating interview and another round of bad news about the mortgage, Jonah is at his wit's end. He heads to the coast to regroup, but never returns home. He is presumed to have drowned while kayaking in the ocean, but no one is certain. Maggie is left to pick up the pieces while weighing her grief, her hope for Jonah's miraculous return, suspicions regarding the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, and her own need to move on with her life ...
In a 1977 article in Film Comment, Robin Wood lists what he calls the essential “values and assumptions so insistently embodied in and reinforced by the classical Hollywood cinema.” Among them: capitalism, the work ethic, marriage and family, “progress, technology, and the city,” and success and wealth. But perhaps most striking is the notion of “America as the land where everyone is or can be happy.” The Happiest Place on Earth takes aim at all these ideals, none more so than the last, which encapsulates the rest and demonstrates a fundamental flaw of the mythic “American Dream.”
Since the publication of Wood’s article, and even more so since the turn of the millennium, middle-class ideals widely considered to be the most viable pathways to happiness – true lasting love, material security, and a safe “nest” in which to raise a family – have grown increasingly elusive in America. Wealth has been distributed upward, jobs have been distributed overseas or evaporated entirely, the national debt has skyrocketed, personal debt has dwarfed personal savings, and the marriage rate has steadily declined. In light of these developments, clinging to these core beliefs of the “American Dream” as presented by the movies would seem a willful act of delusion.
The Happiest Place on Earth was conceived in the wake of my own layoff from a local television job due to the economic downturn. As I wrestled with questions of why and how, and developed coping strategies, I was also struck by how my circumstances could have been much worse, how desperate I might have become if they were, and why. As I wrote, I realized that I was far less concerned with the mechanics of the plot than the national – and human – psychology the plot revealed. Namely, the tendency to believe that we should remain immune from harm, that the end of restoring what’s ours justify whatever action will get us there, and our inability to accept that perhaps the life we perceive to be ours was never real in the first place, just an attempt to recreate a fairy tale.
The film borrows from cinéma vérité (“found” footage and documentary compositions), Italian Neorealism (real locations, actors whose lives resemble the characters’), and Dogme 95 (handheld cameras and available lighting). These techniques facilitate an unvarnished presentation of the juxtaposition between the psychological delusions of the film’s characters, who aspire to a life that may have only existed in the movies, with an indifferent universe that borders on absurdity in how ruthlessly it seems to crush the vanity of individual hopes and dreams. In doing so, The Happiest Place on Earth aims to draw parallels between the American Dream and the fairytale, reveal the limitations of both, and raise the question of what ideology should replace them, on screen and in our lives.
- John Goshorn