Thursday, July 22, 2010

Movie Review: Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime ****
Directed By:
Todd Solondz.
Written By: Todd Solondz
Starring: Shirley Henderson (Joy), Allison Janney (Trish), Ciarán Hinds (Bill), Paul Reubens (Andy), Michael K. Williams (Allen), Michael Lerner (Harvey), Dylan Riley Snyder (Timmy Maplewood), Ally Sheedy (Helen), Rich Pecci (Mark), Chris Marquette (Billy), Renée Taylor (Mona), Charlotte Rampling (Jacqueline).

Todd Solondz is one of the most original filmmakers working anywhere in the world today. His films all take place in a universe seemingly unto itself, with characters appearing in one movie after they were introduced in another. His films are mainly about extremely dysfunctional families, and often involve taboo bust conversations, and children placed in situations that we can barely believe we are seeing. The children in his films are not wide eyed innocents, but have been warped by their cluelessly cruel parents, and are in effect on their way to becoming monsters. In Solondz’s films, the sins of the parents are almost always visited upon they children. Oh, and all of his films are comedies – demented and dark comedies to be sure, but comedies nonetheless.

Life During Wartime takes place in the same universe as Solondz’s biggest hit – 1998’s Happiness. All of the major characters from that movie are back in this one (with a couple thrown in from his Welcome to the Dollhouse for good measure), but they are played by different actors. It doesn’t matter though. Like his previous film Palindromes – where he used 8 different actors to play a 13 year old girl who wants to become pregnant – these characters cannot change who they are no matter how different they look.

Like Happiness, Life During Wartime opens in a restaurant where Joy (here played by Shirley Henderson, taking over from Jane Adams) is eating with the sad sack man in her life, who tries to give her an ashtray with her name engraved on it. In Happiness, this was Andy (Jon Lovitz), who reacts harshly when Joy dumps him, and ends up committing suicide. (Andy returns several times in this movie as well as a ghost, and is played with scary skill by Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens). This time though, the man who tries to give her the ashtray is Allen (Michael K. Williams taking over for Philip Seymour Hoffman), the phone sex freak in Happiness. The two have been married, and Allen says he has left all his addictions behind. But the waitress says differently, prompting Joy to leave Allen and travel from her hometown in New Jersey to Florida, where her mother and sister Trish (Allison Janney, taking over for Cynthia Stevenson) have relocated.

Trish has been able to put her life back together after her husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds taking over for Dylan Baker) was put in jail at the end of Happiness for pedophilia. She has told her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) that his father is dead. Trish has fallen for Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner, who is playing the role that originated in Welcome to the Dollhouse), a devoted Jew who wants to be buried in Israel, despite never having been there before. In one of the films funniest, yet most shocking, scenes Trish confides in her young son that all Harvey has to do is touch her elbow and she becomes wet. Harvey is not especially attractive or rich, or young for that matter, but she is what Trish craves in a man – normal.

Meanwhile, Bill has been released from prison, and stalks through the movie almost silently. He visits the family’s new home in Florida – but only when they are not home. He picks up a woman (Charlotte Rampling) is a bar and takes her back to her hotel room. She catches him raiding her purse after they are done, and is offended and throws him out. He is not so much interested in sex with her, but he does need money. He then travels across country to Oregon to see his son Billy (Chris Marquette), now in university. In Happiness, perhaps the most memorable scene in the film comes when Bill confessed to Billy what he did to his friends at the sleepover. Perhaps the best scene in this movie is when the two of them talk – the conversation once again is not what we expect it to be.

Poor Joy. Along with Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse, she is the most sympathetic character in Solondz’s films. She is a nice person, unlike her sisters who are either obsessed with being normal (Trish) or else so self involved and egocentric – Helen (Ally Sheedy, brilliant in her one scene taking over for Lara Flynn Boyle), yet all she gets is dumped on by everyone. Her family considers her a failure, and then men in her life blame her for all of their failings. Andy comes back from the dead to haunt her, first seemingly being sweet, until she rejects him all over again, which makes him mean. Now Allen is blaming her for his own problems as well. It is no wonder that she is as meek as she is. In this film, Shirley Henderson plays Joy as a woman who is pretty much afraid to open her mouth – every time she does, all that happens is that she gets insulted. Already low on confidence in the first film, but this point she is almost destroyed.

In fact, we feel sorry for a lot of the characters in this movie. Poor Harvey, who does seem like a nice, normal guy in the film, but not as much. It is a testament to the strength of the film that perhaps the funniest scene in the movie is when Timmy mistakes Harvey for a pedophile. Only in a Solondz film would this even be attempted, let alone pulled off as brilliantly as it is. Harvey’s son Mark is back – even further gone done the road of misanthropy then he was in his one scene at the end of Palindromes. Even Bill the pedophile is portrayed with more complexity than most pedophiles get in the movies. Hinds plays him without judgment as a broken man, who knows he has made mistakes, and is still wondering about their consequences. He is much more sympathetic than his shallow, superficial ex-wife. Solondz even seems to hold his own profession up for ridicule when Helen arrives, having given up the glamorous world of poetry to become a Hollywood screenwriter, who is currently dating Keanu Reeves (who sadly, does not make a cameo). It is so hard to write a good screenplay that Joy could not possibly understand the stress and strain that Helen is under.

Solondz does not make it easy, either on his characters or his audience members. His films are often difficult to watch, so he is never really going to have a mainstream hit on his hands. In fact, many of the ardent supporters of his first two films – Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness – seem to have abandoned him on his two films after that (Storytelling and Palindromes). But for me, Solondz remains one of the most distinctive voices in American movies. His films challenge you to see things in a different way. His films may shock you, but they are always honest. Life During Wartime is one of the year’s best films, because Solondz takes risks, and pulls them brilliantly.

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