Review: Life During Wartime
Life During Wartime
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
Starring: Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson
On any given night in every American suburb, there is a couple in a fancy restaurant reconciling their differences and more often than not, breaking up. This happens, I am sure, at every minute of every day, because these are moments complicit with our flawed humanity. When we look back, however, there is always humor to be found, because at the time, we have all been too ingrained in a conversation, in the cadence of working-things-out, to notice the farcical nature of those emotional transactions. Such is the beautiful but ultimately disappointing return for the writer/director Todd Solondz and his always-unique characters in Life During Wartime, which opens at the Ken Cinema this Friday. It is a mostly mundane, dialogue-heavy letdown as Life During Wartime that slowly renders itself an unnecessary epilogue to Happiness. It is Solondz’s first soporific, self-indulgent film of his career.
To interpret Solondz’s new work, you must put it into context with his most celebrated past films, Happiness and Palindromes, both of which are minimal and abstract stories that provoked the viewer to open up to the deeply hurt characters who are dealing with the bizarre symptoms of their hypersexuality. Considering the multitude of his perverse, often taboo subject matters in those films, some critics blanketed Solondz as a writer only interested in shock value. This was misleading, because Solondz rarely judges or provides reasons for his characters’ actions as, because they represent the friends, family, and strangers who exist somewhere in our own lives. Audiences overlook the care Solondz has for these types of characters. So, all these years later, he has come to pick up the pieces of some of the characters of Happiness, and to reflect back on the wounds of that film; such is the battleground in Life During Wartime.
It is unnecessary to have seen Happiness to understand Life During Wartime. Even though some of the first film’s characters reappear, they have taken the form of other actors. We are still following the three sisters of Happiness: Joy, Trish, and Helen. It’s been twelve years since the last film unfolded, and we enter back into an unsteady moment in their lives. We start with Joy, who is played by Shirley Henderson rather than Jane Adams this time, who has decided to take a break from her husband Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character is now played The Wire‘s Omar, Michael Kenneth Williams). She visits Trish (last time out it was Cynthia Stevenson, this time it’s Allison Janney), who has escaped to Florida to inhabit a sepia-tinted world of cocktails-on-the-balcony and a new love prospect. Both these sisters are still haunted by their shared past. Trish has a detached family waiting to inherent a medicine cabinet full of prescriptions and Joy is literally haunted by her ex-boyfriend Andy (played by Paul Reubens, the actor formerly known as Jon Lovitz) with whom she has a series of lovesick conversations.
In what seems like a sequence of no purpose but to fulfill the back story, Joy then visits her successful screenwriting sister Helen (Ally Sheedy, playing a character last taken on by Lara Flynn Boyle) who has little advice for her other than that she would like her own suffering acknowledged. The family comes together around Trish’s son Timmy’s (Dylan Riley Snyder) Bar Mitzvah, where the impending symbolism of this Jewish celebration has brought Timmy to wonder about his father’s past pedophilia. Timmy’s dad Bill (who was played by Dylan Baker in the original, and who now takes the form of Ciaran Hinds) has been released from prison, and is desperately looking for some kind of closure by visiting his eldest son at college. At this point, a certain rhythm of back story and heavy, heavy dialogue persists to make the film become nothing but a vehicle for a joke or two. It is a disappointing arrangement, to be sure, considering Solondz has used this familiar filmic construction in the past with so much more leverage and authenticity.
The title of the film, which works aptly until Solondz’s dialogue beats you over the head with its sentiment, is the grounds for which his characters try to repair the aftermath of relentlessly selfish actions. This tension, which is played throughout, acts to build upon the thin line in which human emotions reach such lucid levels that they reduce moments of pure honesty into laughable moments. One of these moments, which is a rare gem in Life During Wartime, is when Bill runs into an older woman (the venerable Charlotte Rampling) with a sultry, suicide-like intensity about her. She preys on him, and demands to know both nothing and everything about him. They sleep together, and shortly afterwards he finds his way into her wallet. He is caught, reprimanded and lambasted on the spot until he’s ordered to walk away with the money anyway, devoid of any dignity.
Todd Solondz’s films are truly unique pieces that represent a familiar yet convoluted landscape of suburbia. People are filmed relentlessly and without pretense. Many scenes leave room for interpretation because Solondz builds his cinematic reality around the natural complexity of that contemporary world. Unfortunately, this is mostly ignored in this newest piece. Solondz took the wonderment and awe of a puzzling suburban world and laid down some answers to keep the show going. Sure, there are new images and actors and spaces explored, but it’s surprising to see such a brave, intelligent, and novel director attempt to expand on what has been said so well before. While Solondz routinely offends and alienates the unknowing moviegoer who stumbles into his films, Life During Wartime will leave his usual admirers with little to argue for.