"Life During Wartime" Movie Poster
So, anyway, Todd Solondz is back with a new film, and not too many people seem to care.
I caught his latest, Life During Wartime, a sorta-sequel/sorta-variation on his 1998 breakout hit Happiness, at a Saturday matinee showing at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis, essentially indie film central of the upper midwest, the day after it opened — and there were exactly seven people in the auditorium, myself included.
Talking briefly with a couple of moviegoers after the show, they essentially had the same reaction I did — it wasn’t bad by any means, but we all felt, I dunno — kind of underwhelmed by the whole thing. Todd Solondz has grown up and learned to divorce himself from his characters a bit, but I think I preferred the less-analytical, more directly-involved (for good or bad) style of his previous efforts. Hold tight and all will (hopefully) be explained —
First off, if you haven’t seen Happiness, don’t bother with this at all. Solondz assumes the audience is all familiar with the characters, even though each and every one is portrayed by a different actor than last time around (Solondz seems hooked on the idea of changing our perception of his characters based on changing who’s playing them, and uses those changes as a way of questioning the fundamental nature of identity itself — an interesting and challenging move, to be sure, but frankly one that he used to much better effect is his last (and for my money best) film, Palindromes, where the actress (and in one case actor) playing the lead role of Aviva changed several times within the film itself), and he doesn’t bother to really provide much of a point of entry for anyone late to the party.
Fair enough, I guess, it’s his call to make, but certainly the effect on any new viewer is going to be alienating to say the least. But given that alienation is a central concern in all of Solondz’ work, maybe that’s intentional. It’s certainly carried over into his overall approach approach as a filmmaker.
And that’s where my main beef with Life During Wartime lies — in his previous efforts, Solondz has either treated his characters with outright disdain (Happiness, Storytelling) or something approaching a sort of genuine level of sympathy and human concern (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes). In this flick, though, he approaches his subjects with a kind of detached, almost journalistic eye that works decently enough in conjunction with the minimalist production design and straightforward scripting in creating a sort of bare-bones, take-it-or-leave-it environment for his characters to function in, but it never really directly involves the viewer in any sort of way with the events unfolding onscreen.
I’m assuming all of this is quite intentional on his part (Solondz is too talented to assume anything else), and furthermore I can see why he’s chosen to go down this road — as with Happiness, the themes he’s dealing with here are intensely painful and harrowing, and viewing them through a kind of cold, clinical lens produces a juxtaposition, and a tension, between storytelling style and subject that’s interesting, to be sure, but in the end not entirely rewarding.
It’s been a full decade since everything went to hell for the Jordan family in the first film, and the three sisters who were the focal point of the first film have moved on — eternally depressed optimist (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not) Joy (Shirley Henderson) has settled down and married former (or so she thinks) obscene phone caller Allen (Michael K. Williams), but things aren’t going so well and she’s haunted by visions of her ex-boyfriend who committed suicide, Andy (Paul Reubens —one of the truly great things about this film is seeing Pee Wee Herman himself back in action). Uptight-and-always-in-denial Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida and told her kids that their pedophile father Bill, who’s actually due to be released from prison any day, was a great and heroic sort of guy who died a tragic death. She’s met an older guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) whose staunch support for Israel and sexual — well, normalcy — have made her fall instantly in love with him. And uber-successful sister Trish (Ally Sheedy) has given up poetry for screenwriting, moved to Hollywood, cut off ties with her family, and started dating Keanu Reeves. Yes, really.
Things start to go south for the family pretty much from the word go, though — Joy (who gives this film its title with one her corny musical compositions, as was the case with Happiness) learns that Allen hasn’t been able to give up his X-rated prank call habit and flees to Florida, then Hollywood, hoping to find solace with her family (good luck with that). Cracks start to form in Trish’s carefully-constructed dam when her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns the truth about his dad. Things only get worse when the old man gets out of jail and seeks out his their eldest son, Billy (Chris Marquette) at college. And Helen is — well, Helen, and essentially completely divorced from basic concepts of human empathy and understanding, wrapped up in a completely self-absorbed cocoon of pure selfishness.
At this point I may as well admit that I find some of the casting choices a little bit disappointing in relation to the earlier film — the sisters are all well-chosen, but Jon Lovitz was a lot more interesting as Andy than Reubens is (painful as it is for me to say that), Philip Seymour Hoffman was a much more memorable Allen than Williams is, Dylan Baker was a much more terrifyingly real Bill than the detached and damaged figure Hinds portrays, and geez, Renee Taylor as family matriarch Mona can’t hold a candle to Louise Lasser (the ladies’ father, played with his usual consummate professionalism in Happiness by Ben Gazzara, is missing and presumed dead).
I have no doubt that a lot of the differences between how the characters came across the last time around and how they come across here can be more than adequately rationalized as being a realistic portrayal of where they are in their lives now versus where they were then, and represent a natural evolution of the kid of people they would become given the events that have transpired in their lives. I’m cool with that. But that doesn’t mean the actors, and the director, necessarily chose the best way to try to make this phase of their respective stories as interesting as the last was.
Sure, each character’s “arc” (God how I hate that term) is interesting enough in and of itself, but again, Solondz’ detached approach never makes any of the various plotlines as genuinely involving as it could be, and that makes all the difference here. And I’ll state again, while I have no doubt this artistic decision was made quite deliberately, it still doesn’t make for as satisfying a viewing experience as we got the first time around.
I guess a lot of folks are going to say that our guy Todd has simply matured as a filmmaker, but it seems like some of the fire in his belly has gone out a bit. Happiness was as genuinely disturbing to this reviewer on first viewing as films like Salo and Cannibal Holocaust (and no animals — or humans — were harmed in the process), but Life During Wartime feels less like a sequel, or even a variation, and more like an addendum. It’s central theme of forgiveness for the unforgivable feels heavy-handed and frankly shoehorned in, as if to prove there was more of a point here than just saying “oh, by the way, here’s what happened to these people in case you were wondering.”
I don’t to bitch too much here, this is still a more interesting and challenging film than 99% of what’s out there. But given the high level at which Solondz set the bar with Happiness, it has to be said that his folow-up feels like something of a missed opportunity.