Life During Wartime: Repetition or Refinement

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After a whole decade in which he made only two features, “Storytelling” and “Palindromes,” both artistic and commercial flops, Todd Solondz is back on terra ferma with “Life During War,” a solid sequel of a film that revisits the issues and characters of his best work to date, “Happiness,” in 1998, for which he won the International Critics' prize at the Cannes Film Fest.

World-premiering at the Telluride and Venice Film Fests (in competition) and playing at Toronto Film Fest, “Life During Wartime,” made on a budget of about $5 million, should get a U.S. distributor, based on the critical support for the film, which may not be commercial but likely will please Solondz's arthouse patrons.
 
Inevitable comparisons will be made between “Happiness” and his latest outing, which took him four years to write, get finance for, and execute.  "Life During Wartime" walks a fine line between refinement, trying to make a previous work more mature and resonant, and repetition, that is, simply rehashing subjects and characters that already have been exposed and explored.  Overall, "Happiness" is a better movie, also benefiting from the fact that it was the first work in which Solondz showed his worldview.  Thus, I predict that some critics would prefer "Happiness," mainly because it was the first to come out and thus more original.  
 
Aiming to be as wry, provocative, and darkly humorous as “Happiness,” “Life During War” could be perceived as a sequel to that picture, albeit with a new set of actors playing the familiar characters (perhaps ten years later).  This film’s terrific ensemble is composed of older, more experienced actors, such as Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Lerner, and Ciarán Hinds. (See at the bottom the cast of characters and actors of the 1998 “Happiness”).
 
Like other filmmakers of his generation, Solondz is a quintessential indie director who has devoted his career to probing the various phobias and anxieties, specifically sexual desire and sexual politics, as they define (and afflict) suburbanism as a uniquely American way of life, while using an unsettling approach based on shock values that pushes the envelope of what’s permissible in American cinema. 
 
You may recall the film that put him on the map, his second feature, the darkly satirical coming-of-age “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” which world-premiered at the Toronto Film Fest before going to Sundance Film Fest, where it won the Jury Prize in the dramatic competition.
 
It’s hard to understand why the most recurrent character in Solondz’s work is a pedophile, which appears in almost each of his half a dozen pictures. And I mentioned that fact to suggest that, despite the high level of accomplishment, Solondz does not so much chart a new turf as perfect his strategy. There’s also a possibility that in a decade from now, he will return to the same set of characters and problems, and “Life During Wartime,” will form the central panel in a trilogy. 
 
In “Life During Wartime,” the protagonist is Trish (the great thespian Allison Janney (of “American Beauty” fame), who’s separated from her husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds), now in jail, and about to get married again. Having lived with a pedophile, Trish is both relieved and excited to have a different kind of man in her life, Harvey (Michael Lerner, Oscar-nominee for the 1991 Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink”), an older and a more “reasonably normal” father figure for her two sons. 
 
Moral relativism has shaped Solondz’s worldview, according to which definitions of what’s normal and what’s deviant may vary from social class to class and from one individual to another, often in defiance of more conventional societal conceptions. (One of the problems that I've always had with Solondz is that, as an artist, he has not alternative view, or alternate solution, to his dark and cynical philosophy.
 
Things change when Bill is released from prison, and the boys finally meet their future stepfather.  As a result, the whole family clan is forced to deal with a significant ethical and practical dilemma, that is, whether or not to forgive and or to forget the errant father. (Tellingly, the working title of the feature while in production was “Forgiveness”).
 
Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish's sister, is beset by a different set of problems. A virginal and angelic femme, she’s haunted by ghosts of her own former lovers. Just as unhappy as Trish, Joy is on leave from her degenerate husband, Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), and her job at a New Jersey correctional facility. Rather unwittingly, Joy leaves behind exposed secrets wherever she goes.   One of the film's most touching and memorable sequences depicts Joy walking the dark streets of Miami in her nightgown, which contrasts her effort to maintain her innocence against a backdrop of self-affliction and desire.
 
As was manifest in “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” Solondz shows particular sensitivity in depicting young characters (children or teenagers) who are outsiders, and here it is Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish’s second son, who suddenly discovers that his father is not dead (as he had been told) but spent time in prison. Timing of his father’s release is crucial, as Timmy is about to go through the rite of passage of Bar Mitzvah, after which he is expected to feel and behave like a real man. Tortured at school, Timmy is an alert, inquisitive boy, demanding to know what pedophiles do and determined not to be (or be treated as) “a faggot.”
 
The reunion scenes between Bill, the errant father, and his two sons, Timmy and Billy (Chris Marquette), who’s a college student are genuinely touching and ring true, as is brief but priceless scene, in which Bill has an unexpected sexual encounter with a lonely, utterly candid woman, beautifully played by Charlotte Rampling.
 
The entire cast benefits immensely from the sharply observed scenario, which displays Solondz’s qualities as a writer-director, imbuing his work with dark, morbid humor and a sense of playfulness, which are nonetheless grounded in realism.
 
Whether it's viewed as sequel to “Happiness,” or just a revisiting of similar characters, played by different actors, there is not doubt that overall “Life During Wartime” represents Solondz’s most satisfying work to date.
 
Continuing to exhibit one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary filmmaking, Solondz, who turns 50 next month, does proud the American indie cinema, particularly now that it’s in such severe decline.
 
About the Director
 
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Solondz studied English at Yale University and film at New York University. His small output includes “Fear, Anxiety and Depression” (1989), his disastrous feature debut, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), “Happiness” (1998), “Storytelling” (2001) and “Palindromes” (2004).
 
Cast of Happiness
 
In "Happiness," Joy was played by Jane Adams, Helen by Lara Flynn Boyle, Trish by Cynthia Stevenson, Mona by Louise Lasser, Allen by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andy by Jon Lovitz and Billy by Rufus Reed.
 
Cast
 
Joy Jordan – Shirley Henderson
Bill Maplewood – Ciaran Hinds
Trish Maplewood – Allison Janney
Harvey Weiner – Michael Lerner
Billy Maplewood – Chris Marquette
Mark Weiner – Rich Pecci
Jacqueline – Charlotte Rampling
Andy – Paul Reubens
Helen Jordan – Ally Sheedy
Timmy Maplewood – Dylan Riley Snyder
Mona Jordan – Renee Taylor
Allen – Michael Kenneth Williams
Wanda – Gaby Hoffman
Credits
 
A Werc Werk Works production.
Produced by Christine Kunewa Walker, Derrick Tseng.
Executive producers, Elizabeth Redleaf, Mike S. Ryan.
Co-producers, Ken Bailey, Andrew Peterson.
Directed, written by Todd Solondz.
Camera, Ed Lachman.
Editor, Kevin Messman.
Music supervisor, Doug Bernheim.
Production designer, Roshelle Berliner.
Art director, Matteo De Cosmo; set decorator, Bonita Huffman.
Costume designer, Catherine George.
Sound, Heriberto Rosas; supervising sound editor, Eric Offin.
Associate producer, Mark Steele.
Assistant director, Stuart Williams.
Casting, Gayle Keller.