Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 2: Life During Wartime

"Your father may have been a pedophile, but he was still a father and a man."

What can you say about a Todd Solondz movie? By now, there are certain expectations that one has when watching one of his films, and it's virtually impossible to be shocked or surprised by anything that happens even though that still seems to be his main goal at any given moment. I rather enjoyed his last film Palindromes which was an unofficial follow-up to his first feature Welcome to the Dollhouse. Life During Wartime is an official follow-up to his second feature (and my favorite film of his) Happiness. 

Picking up some ten years after, and virtually every character that survived that film (and one that didn't) are in this film. The gimmick this time around is that they've all been re-cast with new actors. Joy, played by Jane Adams in Happiness is replaced here by Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter series). Her sisters Helen and Trish are played here by Ally Sheedy and Allison Janney respectively. Trish's ex-husband Bill, played so expertly by Dylan Baker in Happiness, is played by Ciaran Hinds. Joy is now married to Alan, the role originated by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, played here by Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from The Wire), but she still communicates with her dead ex-boyfriend, memorably played by John Lovitz in Happiness, replaced here by Paul Reubens.

In addition, while it's never explicitly stated, I suspect that Michael Lerner's character Harvey Weiner is supposed to be Dawn Weiner's father from Welcome to the Dollhouse, as evidenced by the character of his son Mark, played here by Rich Pecci, very obviously playing the same character that Matthew Faber played in that film and Palindromes.

All of this goes a long way towards saying that the film is not a good starting point for someone who hasn't seen at the very least Happiness but more likely his entire canon (the awful Storytelling exempted). This is a direct sequel for the most part, and it opens with an almost exact parallel to the opening of Happiness with Joy and a significant other dining out and him giving her an ashtray with her name on it. It filled me with dread that Solondz was going to continue this pattern of just mimicking scenes from the earlier film, but he proves to be smarter than that and flips your expectations for that immediately.

My overall feeling watching this is that he has improved significantly as a visual storyteller since his early days, and this is key. In Dollhouse and Happiness, he could rely on the value of his dialogue, script and actors to do the heavy lifting, but now that we're accustomed to his style, this is no longer enough to sustain an audience, and so he has created some very visually intriguing mise en scene. For example, an early scene with Trish and Harvey Weiner in a parking garage frames them off-center and in the bottom part of the screen. He apes this shot again with Bill when he arrives in Florida. It's as if he's letting us know how small these people are visually, rather than letting their dialogue do that job for him as he would have previously.

The theme of the film seems to be forgiveness. Whereas Happiness was about people trying to find, well, happiness, this film is about those same people looking for forgiveness. Bill has been released from prison and is trying to track down his eldest son at college, for reasons that are unclear until their climactic meeting. His ex-wife Trish has told her two younger children that their father is dead in an effort to protect them. Her middle child Timmy is preparing for his bar mitzvah and has decided his speech will be on the theme of forgiveness and whether it's better to forgive and forget, or if that is even possible. His subplot tended for me to be the most overwrought and reaching, as if Solondz didn't trust his audience enough to glean these themes from everything else going on.

The much more interesting plot line for me was following Joy. In Happiness Joy was definitely put-upon in spite of her seemingly good intentions. Nothing ever seemed to work out for her. Solondz clearly has it in for middle children. I looked but couldn't find any evidence as to whether or not he has siblings, but I wonder what his proclivity toward tortured middle children is. From Dawn Weiner, to Joy, to Timmy, his middle children seem to bear the brunt of his wrath in his films. Here, Joy is tormented by her failing marriage to Alan who she thought to be reformed from his sexually devious phone calls, but it turns out he isn't at all. She goes to Florida to get away for a while and is harangued by her mother and older sister Trish. She is also being plagued by the ghost of Andy, her ex who committed suicide in Happiness. Here, played wonderfully by Paul Reubens (although I would love to have seen what Lovitz would have done with this), he seems to be seeking forgiveness from her, but his ulterior motive seems to be to try and sleep with her, even though he's a ghost.

This is all pretty off-center, as should be expected, and ultimately I think it's one of his least successful films. His aim seems to be people seeking a goal that he makes forever unattainable to them, in this case forgiveness. Perhaps if he hadn't rehashed this same essential plot device from Happiness, I would have found the film more successful, but because it worked so well in that film, I don't see what more he's adding to that equation here, other than the notion that maybe these characters don't deserve any of the myriad carrots he dangles endlessly in front of them.

The best scene by far involved Bill and a strange woman at a hotel bar played by Charlotte Rampling. Does anyone in the history of cinema play sexually damaged better than her? Honestly? Their dialogue was the freshest, boldest, most interesting thing in the entire film, and the conclusion of their scene together was so odd that it almost undercut the entire preceding scene. I guess in the end, by biggest issue with the film was that it undercut itself any time it had the opportunity. Whereas his earlier films would build and build to an almost unbearable climax, this film peaked and climaxed so many times that when we reach the actual climax, it doesn't have the same impact as it should.

In the end, Todd Solondz is still doing more interesting work than 90% of the other filmmakers in Hollywood, and I will watch anything he does. I only hope he continues to challenge himself to try new things rather than rehashing these same characters and themes. Ultimately, he'll end up a better and more complete filmmaker as a result.

I'll be back tomorrow with the previously promised Drive Angry with Nicolas Cage…

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