Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life During Wartime (2009, Todd Solondz)

You know, I think I’m pretty much done with Solondz. Happiness has its problems, particularly when Solondz feels the need to provoke, but it also makes some genuinely cogent points about the inability of its characters to relate to each other, or in some cases even try. For the most part, Storytelling and Palindromes kept the provocations while jettisoning the incisiveness, but I had some hope that Solondz might be able to pull it together for this sequel to Happiness. Alas, no such luck. Life During Wartime tones down the audience-baiting (to a point anyway), but doesn’t fill the gaps with anything interesting. It’s that rarest of creatures- a bland Todd Solondz movie.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a handful of interesting ideas on its plate. Foremost among these is Solondz’s re-casting of the entire ensemble. The most obvious impetus behind this is to suggest the passage of time and the effects the years have had on the characters. Nebbishy pedophile Bill Maplewood, formerly played by Dylan Baker, has emerged from a decade-long prison sentence as hulking, monosyllabic Ciaran Hinds. Sunny bleeding-heart Joy has morphed from Jane Adams into wet blanket Shirley Henderson. Allen, the shut-in prank caller once played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has turned into The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, picking up additional dangerous hobbies along the way.

And so on. It would be easy to call Solondz’s re-casting a cheap formalist prank. After all, this was the guy who alternated half a dozen different actresses of different ages, body types, and colors (along with one male) in the lead role of Palindromes. But I think that Solondz recognizes that most of his audience will already be familiar with Happiness- enough that our familiarity will inform our pre-conceived notions of the characters and their lives. Consequently, he’s able to use the re-casting of the roles to comment on how greatly they’ve changed in the intervening years. For example, in the first movie Dr. Maplewood’s wife Trish, then played by Cynthia Stevenson, was something of a pushover, but a decade of raising her children alone while moving past her family’s dicey past (with help from prescription medications) has turned her into the quirkier, more imposing Alison Janney. Since we already know where she’s been, it’s interesting to see how much she’s changed.

Alas, if only the rest of the movie was so thought-provoking. Not that it doesn’t try, mind you- Solondz clearly thinks he has plenty to say on the subject of forgiveness. And maybe the film could have been a fascinating treatise on forgiveness if only he didn’t feel the need to make his characters talk about it in every other scene. The most egregious mouthpiece for Solondz’s thesis is little Timmy Maplewood (played by Dylan Riley Snyder), who at one point grills his mother and her new beau (the decidedly non-fruity Michael Lerner) about the concept of forgiveness and how far it should be taken. Timmy’s conflicted feelings about forgiveness make sense for his character- after all, this is a kid who has just discovered that his dad isn’t a dead war hero but rather an imprisoned sex offender. But Solondz just doesn’t know when to stop with Timmy. Scene after scene finds Timmy grappling with his feelings loudly and at length, until all I could do was give up on the character. It doesn’t help matters that Solondz feels the need to spout off profanities at several points, or that Snyder is less effective as a flesh-and-blood performer than an image of boyish innocence.

If Timmy is coming to grips with the past, his elders are haunted by it. In the case of Joy, this haunting is literal- she’s visited at several points by Andy (previously Jon Lovitz, now Paul Reubens), who committed suicide after she snubbed him in the first movie. During his visits, Andy appeals to Joy’s memory of their relationship (such as it was) and remembers the pain she once caused him. He also invites her to join him in death, an invitation that’s extended to her once more by Allen’s spirit after he too kills himself. The scenes with the ghosts show some promise- Solondz means to position them as the counterpoint to Timmy’s notions of forgiveness- but mostly come off as clumsy.

This clumsy execution of potentially effective ideas is a common thread that runs through Life During Wartime. There are a handful of moments that actually work as they should, notably a scene in which Charlotte Rampling plays a self-loathing woman who picks up Bill at a bar. But more scenes are like the film’s climax- in which Timmy mistakes an innocent male bonding gesture for an unwelcome sexual advance- which is so hamfisted in its setup and follow-through that most of its impact gets blunted. In the end, very little Solondz does in Life During Wartime manages to hit home. Storytelling and Palindromes didn’t work for me, but at least they were the work of a filmmaker who was trying. By contrast, Life During Wartime finds Solondz, like his characters, replaying old tapes.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of listening to these old tapes. Once again, Solondz’s worldview can be boiled down to “life sucks, and then you die.” The only thing new he can bring to the table here is that it sucks when you’re dead too. But that’s not enough to make his brand of nihilism any less cheap. I’m not averse to bleakness in my movies- I love No Country for Old Men, after all- but if that’s all you got, you don’t have much of anything. Unless I hear that Solondz suddenly has more to say, I think I’ll forego his movies from now on.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

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