Life During Wartime (2010, dir. Todd Solondz)
Starring Alison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Dylan Riley Snyder, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling
I can’t see anyone who hasn’t seen Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness being able to get much from this movie. It is about a direct sequel as you can get, making references to plot points from the first film in ways that makes it un-enjoyable for someone unfamiliar with the older picture. It’s not a bad film, I enjoyed it a lot, it just is not made for the uninitiated. What it does is revisit some familiar faces, some in a more interesting way than others, and offer different perspectives on their personalities. It’s very sad and at times very funny, probably Solondz’s most restrained film to date, but also has me worried about his lack of new characters or material. Life During Wartime also shares elements with Palindromes, as not a single one of the actors from Happiness reprise their roles here, which I suspect is a choice made by Solondz.
Joy (Henderson) has dinner with her husband, Allen in a scene that mimics the opening of Happiness. The entire affair has her remembering that first dinner with Andy (Reubens) who killed himself after she rejected him. It’s decided she will take a trip to visit family in Florida, and Joy ends up in the company of her divorcée mother and single parent sister. Trish (Janney) is getting involved with a new man and helping her middle child, Timmy (Snyder) prepare for his bar mitzvah. Up the coast, Trish’s ex and convicted child rapist, William (Hinds) is released from prison. He also wanders down to Florida sneaking into the house just for glimpses of the family he lost. Joy ends up in California at the home of her other sister, Helen, a pretentious and self-obsessed writer. Where ever she goes she is haunted by the ghost of Andy, who always starts out gentle but becomes violent. It’s a large ensemble movie where characters are connected, but rarely interact.
Solondz seems to have a very strong personal connection to these character types, and I suspect they come from his own family and acquaintances, an exaggerated cinematic sheen spread over them. I found his criticisms of the East Coast Jewish community very interesting. At one point, Trish is talking about her new beau, a middle-aged New Jerseyian and says that he voted for Bush twice and McCain, but only because he knows they support Israel. From many of the more liberal Jews in America, this has been an issue of frustration, how the right has co-opted the pro-Israel cause as their own. So, there’s a lot personal issues in this and all of Solondz’s films. The film has three central figures: Joy, William, and Timmy. All three of these characters are haunted (some literally) by the past. Joy is visited by Andy, whose suicide she spurred forward. William, newly released from prison, has lost every thing and wanders down the east coast and eventually to the pacific northwest searching for something. Timmy has been told William was dead his entire life and has just now learned his father was a pedophile. This warps his sense of intimacy with others, and will have a profound effect on his mother’s burgeoning relationship.
While the film is seen as an exaggeration of real life, I suspect it is closer to realism than most films. Solondz appears to be a very good listener, especially for interactions between family members. In almost every conversation between a mother and daughter, sisters, etc. no one is every asking about or talking about the other person they are with. While Helen may be the most outwardly self-absorbed, every character here only talks about themselves, is only concerned with what they need. The only exception I would say is William, the pedophile. There’s a couple moments where we gasp, thinking he may be tempted, but he abstains. He contemplates stealing from his family to pay his way, but stops. William eventually ends up at his eldest son, Billy’s college in Oregon and explains he sought him out just make sure Billy didn’t inherit his father’s predilections. Once he is assured Billy is “normal”, he says goodbye, and the implication is that he goes off somewhere private and kills himself.
Wartime is a heavy film, to be sure, but also surprisingly funny in very dark moments. Not a movie for the cinematic light at heart, but for the viewer who wants to have their ideas about “good” film challenged, then I think there is definitely some thing here for you.