Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Life During Wartime: Review of the most recent Todd Solondz film

“Forgive and forget” is the mantra repeated throughout Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime. It is, for all intents and purposes, a sequel to his 1998 ironic comedy Happiness, although it’s been completely recast. The new film picks up a decade or so after the first film. The characters have, in rather limited ways, grown and matured.

The first scene is between Allen, the loser obsessed with wild pornographic fantasies who makes obscene phone calls to strangers (originally portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but here played by Michael K. Williams), and Joy (Shirley Henderson) out for an anniversary dinner. Clearly there are troubles in their marriage. Joy is in tears when we first see her. It isn’t long before Allen is also crying. Come to think of it, there is hardly a character in the film who doesn’t cry at least once. Notice the way the set design makes Allen and Joy look like small children in a situation that is way over their heads. Certainly that’s how they must feel in their lives and possibly how many people feel when they have to face down real adult challenges. Joy is occasionally dogged by the memory (or ghost) of her ex-boyfriend, Andy (originally Jon Lovitz, but Paul Reubens here), who killed himself after she left him.

Also back in the fold are Joy’s sisters, Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy). Trish is now divorced from the pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) who is recently released from prison and on a quest to locate his eldest son, Billy. Billy was a troubled young boy in Happiness, forced to come to terms with the fact that his father was sexually attracted to boys his age. Billy is now off at college, happy to spin the tale Trish made up that their father died. Trish has another son, Timmy, about to make his bar mitzvah. With Dad in prison (or dead as far as he knows) and Billy off at school, Timmy feels a big responsibility toward his new role as man of the house.

In the meantime, Trish has started dating a too perfect divorcee (Michael Lerner) who worked for Bush and McCain only because they were pro-Israel. If you don’t find that detail even mildly amusing, this film is not for you.

I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have seen the earlier film to appreciate or understand what’s going on here. Life During Wartime can stand on its own as a complete narrative, but I will say that a familiarity with Happiness can only inform a slightly deeper appreciation for this one. In some ways it fully rounds out the story Solondz started 12 years ago. If that first film was about depravity, moral emptiness, sadness, and lack of fulfillment, then here finally we get the catharsis.

The people who were doing some terrible things to each other are now trying to find paths to redemption – or at least forgiveness. Joy seeks forgiveness from her ghostly memory of Andy and also from her current husband, whom she has also abandoned. Bill seeks out Billy for one of the most awkward encounters in cinematic history looking for forgiveness. Little Timmy, shortly arriving at manhood, begins exploring what it means to forgive and forget. What can we forgive? And can we actually forget or is it enough to simply offer and accept forgiveness.

One gets the sense that Solondz has spent some time watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but instead of an intensely dramatic exercise he offers up a dark comedy, finding sardonic humor in moments that should be considered uncomfortable at best and greatly inappropriate at worst. When Trish tells Timmy that the man she just had a date with made her “wet” just by lightly touching her elbow, we can’t help but laugh in spite of recognizing how very wrong the conversation is. Therein lies the brilliance of Solondz’s wit. It’s funny principally because Timmy doesn’t have a clue what his mother is talking about.

Solondz has said this film is more politically overt than his previous films, but he really only gives a cursory glance toward current events. It strikes me that the title, which also lends its name to an original song written by Solondz and Marc Shaiman, is also deeply ironic in the sense that the lives of these characters is so thoroughly unaffected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe that right there is Solondz’s over political statement.

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