Reviews

Todd Solondz

USA, 2009

Credits

Review by Mike D’Angelo

Posted on 05 October 2009

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

Eleven years ago, Todd Solondz momentarily dialed back the juvenile bitterness that poisons all of his work and made Happiness—a film that, despite its cheaply ironic title, did succeed in at least finding occasional glimpses of sincere empathy amidst all the mockery. Alas, this comparative triumph didn’t turn out to herald a newfound maturity in Solondz’s work, and he quickly reverted to his jejune button-pushing. Still, something about the actual, quasi-human characters that he created for Happiness must have haunted him, because he’s resurrected the lot – quite literally, in one particular case – for Life During Wartime, a bizarre quasi-sequel in which all of the roles are played by different actors. Cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, the result is indeed Solondz’s least facile and most affecting picture since Happiness… even if, in my case, that essentially amounts to “least painful kick in the nuts since junior high.”

For those who’ve forgotten – I had, frankly – Happiness revolved around three sisters living in New Jersey: Joy, Trish and Helen. Joy (the mousy one) is now unhappily married to Allen, the mouth-breather who spent most of the first film making obscene phone calls to Helen (the bitchy one), who appears very briefly here as a monstrously entitled, Emmy-winning screenwriter. Trish (the frumpy one), meanwhile, has moved to Florida in an attempt to forget her ex-husband, Bill, revealed in Happiness as a pedophile who regularly drugged and raped their son’s little friends. As Life During Wartime begins, Bill has just been released from prison and seeks to make amends with little Timmy, who’s grown into a predictably screwed-up college student. Complicating matters further are Trish’s prospective new beau, who has no idea how terrified her kids are of being touched by any adult, and Joy’s ex-boyfriend Andy, who committed suicide after she dumped him and now frequently appears as a whiny ghost.

One the one hand, it’s hard to imagine how anyone who hasn’t seen Happiness will be able to even follow Life During Wartime, which assumes familiarity with its large cast of losers. On the other hand, however, anyone who has seen Happiness must initially contend with the overwhelming weirdness of seeing these characters reinterpreted by an entirely new cast. Some of the substitutions, like squeaky-voiced English actress Shirley Henderson for Jane Adams, are barely noticeable, while others – Philip Seymour Hoffman replaced by Michael K. Williams (best known as Omar on The Wire) – come across as shallow stunts. And then there’s Ciáran Hinds, whose flinty, impassioned portrayal of Bill the pedophile bears zero resemblance to the tortured nebbish so memorably embodied by Dylan Baker. The difference is so pronounced that you want to believe it’s intended as a sober reflection on the way that time and remorse (and prison) can change people, but the other haphazard casting choices make that impossible, as does Solondz’s meaningless use of multiple actors in the same role in Palindromes.

And so it goes with Life During Wartime, which, just like Happiness, alternates throughout between the genuinely bracing and the gratuitously punishing. When Solondz silently observes Bill wandering through Trish’s new house in Florida, looking at photographs of the children he hasn’t seen in years, it’s possible to hope that this talented but stunted filmmaker has put his cheap shots away—a hope immediately dashed when, for example, Trish instructs her pre-teen son to scream any time an adult male touches him, leaving us with nothing to do but wait for the inevitable moment when some poor schmuck’s reassuring hand on the shoulder gets him mistaken for a sexual predator. Even at his best, Solondz can’t help but pander to the viewer’s basest instincts—a problem that only the world’s greatest actors, by bringing humanity to even his most rancid speeches, can mollify. (Charlotte Rampling has a single-scene cameo here makes everything else in the film look amateurish by comparison.) Returning to his greatest success only demonstrates how much further he still needs to travel.

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