August 7, 2010
Life During Wartime (2010) ***1/2
Directed by Todd Solondz
Life During Wartime (2010)- Though a bit busy & too tethered to the logic of Happiness, this is an interesting look at guilt. ***1/2 of 5
Todd Solondz's Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse were pivotal films for me as someone who has developed into a self-proclaimed film buff. At around 18 years old, I was drawn to the sorts of films that explore the dark side of the human condition with humor. Happiness, especially, was so funny to me even though it depicted unflinching depravity with the hardest scenes to stomach involving young children. Back then, I thought I was that much cooler because I liked Happiness; now, I appreciate it a bit more from an arm's length, and I would never actually recommend the film to anyone considering its subject matter. That being said, though I haven't watched Happiness in ten years, I remember the film vividly, and it truly is a masterpiece.
Life During Wartime is a re-imagined sequel to Happiness with many of the same characters played by different actors. Happiness' cast consisted of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Jon Lovitz, Lara Flynn Boyle and Cynthia Stevenson. Their roles are played in Life During Wartime by Michael K. Williams, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy and Allison Janney. Happiness focused on broken people's searches for fulfillment in a very broken world, while Life During Wartime explores guilt and the complexities of whether it's possible to forgive and/or forget. Even though Happiness is a much more shocking movie, Life During Wartime is the sadder film because from the beginning the viewer knows the futility of any character's quest for self-improvement. In a Solondz universe, there's nowhere to go but down.
At the center of the divergent plots are a divorce, a suicide, a pedophile's release from prison and a young boy not quite ready to become a man. All the melodrama exists within a heightened world where everyone speaks and reacts just a little too deliberately. At times, we enter into characters' dreams, fantasies and hallucinations only to find that what's going on in the mind is just as bad as what's going on in the real world.
Allison Janney's Trish Maplewood jumps all-too-quickly into a relationship with a married older man. There's a definite sense that she could do better, but after the betrayal and guilt she must have felt after learning of her ex-husband's pedophilia, her sense of self-worth is clearly damaged. On top of that, she's told her two younger children that their father is dead, because in a sense, he is dead to them. This all becomes problematic when her thirteen year old son, who's about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, learns the truth about his father. He's focused on whether or not it's possible to forgive and forget, considering the ramifications of his father's actions. The boy equates pedophilia with terrorism in this time of war, and considering how we're living in a country that's not forgiving and forgetting 9/11, how can he possibly come to terms with the sins of his father?
Meanwhile, Trish's college aged son, who's become quite the pot smoker, finds his father Bill at his dorm. He seems willing to talk things through, but Bill's own reticence to ask forgiveness gets in the way of either of them moving forward. Then there's Joy, a mousy woman who's on the precipice of an impending divorce from her drug and phone sex addicted husband Allen. She's not only dealing with the guilt of a broken marriage, but she's also literally haunted by the ghost of a former one-time blind date who killed himself because of her rejection.
I've heard it said that one doesn't really need to know Happiness to understand and appreciate Life During Wartime, but I find that hard to believe. Especially during each character's first scene, there are blatant reminders of who these people were and where they placed in Happiness' narrative. Unfortunately, this tethers everything into a world already established, and the result feels a little stifled. Had Solondz started fresh, Life During Wartime could have explored the same themes with much more focus and success. I suppose it's an accomplishment that he brought back these characters in interesting ways, but when it all comes down to it, Life During Wartime is simply a gimmick, and I do feel its success suffers a bit because of Solondz's indulgence.
The final scene involves Trish's son at his bar mitzvah talking to Trish's boyfriend after a previous altercation which stemmed from an odd misunderstanding. His speech perfectly captures the logical inconsistencies of our modern society's understanding of absolute good and evil. In the background, we see a character walk across the screen and then disappear into nothingness. Solondz presents a funny but brutally damning condemnation of what these unhealthy expectations can do to people trying to navigate an all too lethal terrain. When adults have no idea what they're doing, what hope does a boy becoming a man have for success, especially with the father he has--or doesn't have for that matter?