Life During Wartime (2009, Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz is one of my favorite working directors; I feel a pretty strong kinship with his work, the buttons he pushes, the things he finds terrible and revealing and funny, that I can’t fully explain except that I find myself constantly responsive all the way through his movies. There’s one sequence in Palindromes, for me his second best film behind Happiness, that’s as harrowing an illustration of shock and grief as I’ve ever seen on film — and within the same few minutes he can make you laugh while feeling suspicious that you shouldn’t be laughing. To me, the discomfort that he trades in is among the grandest of things that cinema’s capable of. So the release of his sixth film (fifth in reasonable circulation), Life During Wartime, might not qualify as a major event of the last few years for most, but to me it’s pretty significant. While the film is less striking than the four immediately prior to it, it also cuts a bit deeper and lingers in the mind longer than Happiness, longer than any of his other films save Palindromes (arguably). What’s more, it could function as a response to Solondz’s many vocal critics who make charges that his work pinpoints him as a hardened misanthrope — the movie not only shares an empathy and humanism that’s always been an element of his screenplays, it makes it a crucial story point. You can’t deny it anymore because now it’s in the text.
Ostensibly, Wartime is a sequel to Solondz’s spectacularly divisive 1998 comedy Happiness, an unflinching project that somewhat predicted the indie-level quirk cinema of the subsequent decade while exhibiting a lot of muscle and conviction even its studio counterparts (like American Beauty) couldn’t replicate. For my part, I don’t think the films have much in common, and not just because the entire cast is different — technically all of the major characters of Happiness are reprised here, but their personalities aren’t fully consistent with what was established in the earlier film, and the story is so vastly different in structure, tone, and theme that it seems accurate to describe Happiness, as Solondz himself has, as a “jumping off” point. The tonal change here is quite radical and makes the film feel like a new beginning of sorts for the director, since it also plays in marked contrast to his separate efforts. The feeling of dread and unstated misery that frequently threatened to destroy his characters in the past has now turned around to a strange and difficult warmth, and a more resigned sorrow. It’s not unlike Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, a structural reference point for Happiness, strangely heartfelt in its own reluctant way.
We rejoin the three sisters about ten years after the events of Happiness. Joy (Shirley Henderson, formerly Jane Adams) has married the obscene phone caller Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams taking over for Philip Seymour Hoffman) but considers leaving him after learning that he’s continued with his perversion; she remains haunted by the memories of the man (Jon Lovitz in Happiness, replaced by an outstanding Paul Reubens here) who killed himself after she dumped him — a memory that takes on distressing significance when it appears that Allen is on the brink of giving up. Trish (Allison Janney, adding considerable nuance to the groundwork laid by Cynthia Stevenson) has convinced her younger children that their father is not in prison for his rape of two young boys but in fact simply died when they were little. Now, she’s dating for the first time and she’s met Harvey Wiener (a character from Welcome to the Dollhouse, now played by Michael Lerner, meaning we get a wonderful cameo from Mark Wiener as well) and can’t resist going on about how “normal” he is to everyone; she isn’t yet aware that her husband (Ciarán Hinds, in a stirringly quiet showcase, a brilliant match for the shattering Dylan Baker) is out of prison and attempting to communicate with his family. Only self-centered Helen (Ally Sheedy, improving immeasurably on Lara Flynn Boyle’s role) seems not to be crying for help, delivering a speech midway through that’s a deadly accurate satire of the limousine-liberal mentality (how can you talk about your problems? there’s a war on!). Life During Wartime doesn’t take these people anywhere it feels they haven’t already been; it’s a movie about situations, not stories. Its momentous events are all of the heart’s intangibles.
In Palindromes, Solondz’s frequent character Mark Wiener makes a lot of comments about people, in his view, never changing. Life During Wartime doesn’t counter that, but does show how the weathering of years can alter a face, a belief, a need. The only ghost we see is Joy’s mental companion, who keeps trying to get in her pants even as a dead man, but everyone is haunted, imprisoned by the bright pastels and deadening humdrum of the slightly exaggerated Florida around them. When Joy drifts off into the night for a mental health moment, it’s through a parking lot to a kitschy restaurant she treks; hope for the future, for even an escape, seems an impossibility. The mundane becomes unnerving, the strange suggestions of a larger world (Reubens’ ghost, Hinds’ sudden shadowy appearance in his children’s lives) the clear touchstones of actual life. And yet, everyone is trying — in the face of loud voices demanding surrender to which they may or may not succumb in the end.
It’s long been clear to me that the most powerful scene, the most difficult and unforgettable, in Solondz’s oeuvre was the final conversation between Dylan Baker’s Bill and his son in Happiness — its unbearably blunt dialogue (“would you ever fuck me?”) masked a sense of total despair and all-encompassing parental love and protection, despite the father’s horrendous crimes. That’s no longer true; Solondz’ new masterpiece of a scene involves the same two characters, now portrayed with more gravity and less temptation to involve through shock but the same perverse familial love. When Billy, the elder son now in college, is finally confronted by the estranged father who’s been pursuing him for the full narrative, it’s supposedly so that assurance can be gained that the boy is not turning into his dad. The son’s emotions are more complicated still, as he makes clear his lack of sympathy for his father and his actions but still makes plain his love and longing to know him. With halting dialogue and a genuinely crushing melancholy, this tidbit alone would make the film worth seeing — the writing, the performances, the camera angles, the gravity of what’s unsaid, everything: just perfect, a moment of absolutely glorious filmmaking.
Solondz’s story is about people, as always, but as in Palindromes, the shadow and fear of our times does come through. The film’s two explicit themes are forgiveness and war, specifically the sad desperation of a nation burdened by fear and loss. At the core of everything is a family that intensely wants to be glued back together but can never be, really. These ideas coalesce wonderfully in the mind of Billy’s younger brother Timmy (Dylan Snyder), the boy who’s only now discovering the awful truth about his long-gone parent, when he demands of his mom’s new boyfriend why he wouldn’t forgive a terrorist, even one of the 9/11 terrorists, and whether he believes a pedophile is a terrorist. This is all played with the Jonathan Demme trick of Janney and Lerner looking down directly into the camera, pleading their case to Timmy (and us). There’s a cutting, casual nature to the boy’s simple humanism that may be a mask for a base desire to have a dad to forgive.
Surprisingly enough, the performances in Life During Wartime may be more consistently impressive than in any other Solondz film to date. There’s no miraculous showpiece like Dylan Baker in Happiness or John Goodman in Storytelling, but in this true ensemble piece everyone seems larger than their screen time. Only Shirley Henderson seems slightly incongruous with the tone of the film overall, but no matter. Solondz’s forte has always been his direction of child actors, which is as phenomenal as ever here, but he seems to have learned more than ever how to paint with faces, actors, a general burden shared by underplaying performers at peak power, all of whom are happy to give this movie so much. Ally Sheedy makes an extraordinary impression in her brief turn, Allison Janney balances the sharp satire of the earlier version of her character with a believably wounded undercurrent, and Paul Reubens and Ciarán Hinds are phenomenally understated as different kinds of dead men walking — matched up easily by Michael Kenneth Williams’ tortured pervert who finds acceptance all too late. Chris Marquette’s revision of the precocious Billy, now a college student, has a trustworthy gravity that underlines Hinds’ work flawlessly. Charlotte Rampling is on the screen even less than Sheedy, as an older woman with whom Bill experiences a brief and vaguely tragic tryst that mirrors his father in law’s fling in Happiness, but her tauntingly erotic and hardened face in her eerie scenes stays with you long after the film’s faded, a mirror image of the whorehouse scenes in The Last Detail. There’s something improbably grand about spending time in the company of great actors allowed to just play with their parts like this, to explore so many recesses in so little time, and this is another way in which Life During Wartime gives as much immense pleasure in its details as in its final impact.
Solondz’s visual style has always been centered on kitschy ugliness and blunt-force nonchalance, so it’s interesting to watch him attempt to pretty up a film with color filters and atypically clever compositions, and mostly succeed at doing so. His D.P. for Wartime, Edward Lachman, is one of the current greats — widely regarded for his work with Steven Soderbergh and Todd Haynes — and the only hindrance to the sumptuously empty blues and shopping-mall desolation of this project is the insistence (probably financially motivated) of shooting digitally, which works fine in some scenes but gives some of the consciously brightly lit setpieces an unwelcome blown-out feeling. The RED also is guilty of fouling up a potentially gorgeous outdoor night sequence in which Timmy interrogates his potential stepfather, overdriving the color until his face looks like mush. But coming off the self-conscious artificiality of previous Solondz films, especially the fairy tale-flavored Palindromes, the calmer willingness to find beauty in the ordinary here is a welcome departure, even if it sometimes swings and misses for technical reasons.
This is all making Life During Wartime sound like a very serious picture, when in the final analysis what made Happiness so wonderful was its charmingly outlandish humor. That’s hardly the case; even though in its best moments Wartime has a seriousness and honest yearning that were never seen before in Solondz, it’s also splendidly funny and enjoyably fucked up. Outsiders will groan at Solondz’s characterization of a suburban woman telling her son her boyfriend made her “wet,” but those familiar with such parental pratfalls will smile, and no one should doubt Solondz’s integrity and sense of responsibility for his characters, which is what separates this from skilled films like American Beauty that amount to elevated sitcoms mocking the notion of family. Solondz believes in families, he believes in raising children as best you can, he just thinks it’s really hard to pull all that off and very seldom does it go exceptionally well and never as we envision it. The mastery of this film even more than his others is in the writer-director’s newfound subtlety, which lets it operate like an emotional timebomb. Reflecting on the father-son confrontation days later, not to mention Rampling’s speech before she seduces the doomed child rapist, the obscure beauty of the dead Allen’s attempt to convince his still-living wife to join him, and perhaps most of all Timmy’s impassioned denial at the end that his father was a pedophile even after he knows this to be true, were choking me up at inopportune times days later. Not many movies are capable of that — even Solondz hadn’t quite gotten there until now, which gives me a feeling of great hope. Even this far into his career, he’s still a young director with so much more to bring us. If even his least throttling effort can give me this remarkable range of feelings, I think he’s potentially some sort of a master.