Life During Wartime
Directed by Todd Solondz
Runtime: 98 min.
One of the most poignant scenes in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime features a college student’s dorm decorated with a poster for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. It’s a ballsy move. Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan charade stole its multi-protagonist concept from Solondz’s 2004 film Palindromes. Critics’ darling Haynes won acclaim that was withheld from the stylistic, empathic challenge of Palindromes, yet Solondz soldiers forward. Once again he’s made a more affecting film than any by Haynes. In fact, Life During Wartime might be the toughest American movie of 2010. Its audacity confirms Solondz’s ingenuity and thematic focus.
But Solondz also forgives the thief who purloined then degraded his highly original concept. And forgiveness is the concept that saturates Life During Wartime. Solondz revisits characters from Happiness, his 1998 new Jersey dysfunctional family epic, but as in Palindromes, he casts new actors. It therefore requires a fresh response to the three Jewish sisters who relocate to Florida but barely cope with their life wreckage: Joy (Shirley Henderson) flees her rehabilitated fiancé (Michael Kenneth Williams); Trish (Allison Janney) seeks a new husband to replace Bill (Ciarán hinds), a convicted sex fiend; and Helen (Ally Sheedy) trades her literary ambitions for unfulfilling profit as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Returning to these pre-9/11 characters, Solondz concentrates on their current circumstances, refining their personal misery, ethnic identity and social distress. Not a detached, pseudo-academic pastiche like Haynes’ experiments, Life During Wartime zeroes in on particular existential angst—dissatisfaction that has the sisters looking outside themselves while an interior panic dulls them. He makes the mundane searingly funny, as when Trish’s son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) discovers the father he thought was dead is actually a convicted pedophile: He goes into anxiety, howling, “I don’t want to be faggot!” Solondz’s situations are funny, shocking and tough, but he’s never sarcastic—which is why his exacting satire upsets some viewers, especially those accustomed to enjoying hipster disdain. They might misunderstand that Timmy’s alarm carries the burden of learned homophobia; or miss that his adolescent terror follows the sound of a cantor’s lonely wail. The depth of Timmy’s sorrow isn’t cheapened by mockery. Solondz’s daring, straightforward vision attends to his characters’ ethnic grounding and notes it assiduously—the way Saul Bellow did—as aspects of genuine experience. Timmy’s crude language and fumbling distress aren’t merely about sexual anxiety but a more serious, ingrained misery regarding sexuality and worldview. The gravity of Solondz’s satirical bent—a modern version of what Bellows’ generation joked about as Jewish guilt—adds universality to his observation of the contemporary condition.
Timmy’s difficulty with the question of forgiving and forgetting (“It’s what makes you a man,” he says in anticipation of his bar mitzvah) concerns all the characters. Solondz uses 9/11 to focus the dilemma for Joy’s mournful love life; Helen’s glamorous, yet severe, self-abnegation; Trish’s selfrighteousness; Bill’s self-loathing and his elder son Billy’s unhappiness.
Since 9/11, Solondz has sharpened his perception of the characters’ delusions, their political smugness: Trish tells a suitor, “You’re not at all my type,” yet praises that he supports Israel despite voting for Bush and McCain. Solondz’s satire cuts very close to the bone, correcting such complacency as in The Kids Are All Right— which a critic foolishly claimed “shows how we live today” when its PC propaganda actually does the opposite.
Solondz doesn’t coddle our prejudices but probes them. His pop-smart title is borrowed from a song on Talking Heads’ greatest album, 1979’s Fear of Music. Not doing a haynes, however, Solondz invents a whole new melody and lyrics (“Time to reflect time/ Time to rethink time”).
Life During Wartime transcends the sitcom, whereas Lisa Cholondenko’s film fit right into that niche—as do the mawkish Greenberg and Cyrus. Solondz outdistances those conceits with resolute humor that powerfully outlines his characters’ struggles—an achievement that also credits his actors: Shirley Henderson’s first tear-stained close-up recalls Jennifer Jason Leigh’s torment in Palindromes, yet Henderson’s singsong voice provides a compelling lyricism for a character in emotional shards. She’s paired with Michael Kenneth Williams, a specialist in playing black American freaks as he did in The Road and, most famously, on HBO’s The Wire. But Solondz soothes Williams’ debility (that real-life scar across his ebony beauty), seeing past it and into freakiness.
In Henderson’s duets with Paul Reubens as the ghost of a tragic relationship, Solondz changes tenses, tripping into surreal empathy, exposing unhealed emotional wounds. The intensity of Henderson’s scenes are a triumph of feeling that’s repeated in Charlotte Rampling’s shocking self-disgust and given soulful variation whenever Ciarán Hinds is on screen.
Hinds’ haunted look is ideal for ex-con Bill; in his best role since Munich, Hinds turns inhumane error into pathos. The pedophile role was a daring proposition when Dylan Baker first played it in Happiness; now Solondz extends the dare, heightening the misunderstanding between Bill and his now college-age son Billy (Chris Marquette) into extraordinary sympathy. there isn’t enough of this heartbreaking reunion, which means Solondz measures it perfectly. That’s also how Ed Lachmann videographs each scene—sensitive to flesh tone that brings out the blood beneath the surface. Lachmann also gives Solondz a risky F/X combining Bill’s loneliness and agony in a painful blurred symbol of his loss. To those Nolanoids impressed by the sentimental phantoms of elusive children in Inception (cheap steals from Chris Marker’s La Jetée): This is how an artist conveys pathos.
Life During Wartime’s superb rhyming structure achieves a spiritual social summary the way artists used to when attuned to a cultural moment—as in the 1970s. But recent hits suggest that most moviemakers have lost their bearings, while distinguished box-office flops like the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and the recent Holy Rollers indicates that audiences are also rudderless. Those two films (in which modern Jews contemplate man’s relationship to Hashem) share Solondz’s interest in assessing our contemporary moral circumstance that routinely gets perverted these days into fashionable platitudes like Sheedy’s neurotic protest: “We’re still a country at war!” declared alongside her peacefully gurgling L.A. swimming pool.
Yet Timmy’s suffering—in a final scene the finest American dramatists would envy— penetrates that defensiveness. To forgive and forget in the post-9/11 era is not just a ballsy proposition. As an expression of modern compassion, it’s genius.