Life During Wartime (2010) dir. Todd Solondz
Starring: Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney and Paul Reubens
By Blair Stewart
As we get older we may get a little softer, and to a degree you can say that about Todd Solondz. His ferocious one-two punch of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness in the ‘90s received as many accolades as abuse for their subjects of human perversity and cruelty between the beltways of American cities.
Just behind the ugliness of his characters is the humanity; Solondz can make a child rapist or murderer seem unexpectedly and pathetically human using small details instead of monsters made of broad strokes. A sequel to 1998's Happiness, with returning roles given to different actors (like the abortion-themed quagmire of Palindromes), Life During Wartime is a duller blade than its predecessor with words like 'forgiveness' tossed about often. The film is also thankfully devoid of ejaculate if you're familiar with the original.
Once a down-to-earth family man and pedophile, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker's best role in Happiness, now Ciaran Hinds) is released from prison and seeks his adult son, Billy, for a chat. His ex-wife, Trish (Allison Janney), has fled with the rest of the litter to the melanoma Jewish strongholds of Miami and her young Timmy is on the cusp of his Bar Mitzvah passage. While Timmy eeks out the meaning of becoming a man, Trish's dysfunctional sisters come back into the fold. Humanity's apologetic doormat, Joy (Shirley Henderson), flees her wayward husband, Allen (Michael K. Williams, or to you fans of The Wire: Omar!), and artist/writer/full-time crazy bitch, Helen, has left the East Coast to screw around in Hollywood. As Trish reaches out for affection from the leftover male side of the Weiner family from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Bill rolls into town. Lacerating humour ensues.
Having sat on Life During Wartime for a few days, my feelings of admiration for Solondz remain, and yet I fear he's bound to a similar fate as Kevin Smith's redundant universe. Both have travelled in circular patterns with their characters, returning to the same well for inspiration, and both provide signposts for us as we age and break down spectacularly. But Solondz has the talent to tell his stories in other categories and genres – Terry Zwigoff is a good example of a parallel talent over the past few decades. The world doesn't need a Solondz comic book popcorn-muncher, but it could use his take on the romantic comedy or the courtroom drama.
The camera of Ed Lachman (I'm Not There, The Limey, Ken Park) is sharper than in previous efforts from Solondz, and the writing and acting are strong with Hinds radiating a sweltering presence as the father figure and Janney chewing on the ironic deadpan gristle of her dialogue. But the spark of the new film from the writer/director has been withered by a decade of Internet porn and Vice Magazine.
The kindness more overtly shown to the players is appreciated, but one of the top American filmmakers of the ‘90s needs to leave his comfort zone.
Life During Wartime is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.