Todd Solondz’s latest film, Life During Wartime (2010), feels more like a shaggy dog story or a postscript than a full-fledged movie. (The same could probably be said for his last effort, Palindromes .) That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, but it’s still disappointing, as it dollops out hints of Solondz’s genius for awkward, sometimes icky black comedy without ever giving the audience a full serving. It also has the disadvantage of sitting in the shadow of Solondz’s controversial and razor-sharp Happiness (1998), as it revisits the same traumatized sisters and their families years later. Since it’s about the fallout of the earlier film’s events, it’s understandable that Life During Wartime would be more somber and pensive, but it’s also soppy and aimless. Which sucks, because I love Solondz’s stuff.
In Life During Wartime, the jittery pedophile psychiatrist once played by Dylan Baker has become a ghostlike ex-con played by Ciarán Hinds. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s phone-abusing sex addict is now a tearful Michael Kenneth Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle’s narcissistic go-getter is now a distraught Ally Sheedy, and so forth for the rest of Happiness‘s unhappy ensemble. Recasting every character might seem gimmicky, but fear not; it pays off, if with wildly varying returns. The most rewarding of the newcomers is probably the least expected: Paul Reubens (yes, Pee-Wee Herman) replacing Jon Lovitz as Andy, the nerdy loser who commits suicide after being romantically rejected.
Reubens, then, is Andy’s ghost, occasionally popping up to haunt the ironically named Joy (Shirley Henderson, who sounds like Carol Kane on helium). As I’ve always said, he’s a truly gifted actor, investing Andy with a potent mix of longing, self-loathing, and undirected anger, which boils and periodically bursts. His first appearance, confronting Joy in an empty diner late at night, is actually haunting – and the underlying similarities that emerge between the cherubic Lovitz and the pale, slim Reubens are revelatory. This is Life During Wartime at its best, where the screenplay’s overwrought emotion and credibility-straining conceits are smoothed out by the fine performances.
Alas, most of the movie is too episodic and too reliant on Happiness‘s hard-won success to work this well. The subplot that gets the most screen time, in which the pedophile’s ex-wife (Allison Janney) tries to rebuild her life as her younger son approaches his bar mitzvah, feels largely like a warmed-over rehash of the uncomfortable father/son relationship from Happiness. That film’s disturbing conversations about masturbation are replayed in all possible permutations as little Timmy, who’s almost a man, asks his mother and her beau (Michael Lerner, who’s excellent) about the nuances of pederasty. Worse yet, Solondz aims for political topicality with shoehorned-in mentions of terrorism that only make the film feel like it’s trying too hard to be of-its-time.
Perhaps even worse than Solondz’s misguided attempt to harness the post-9/11 zeitgeist is the parallel and equally unsubtle emphasis on forgiveness. I appreciate that Happiness‘s characters – especially Bill the pedophile, Allen the sex addict, Andy, and Joy – want to unburden their souls and find some sense of spiritual ease. I just wish it flowed easier, instead of being squeezed into every corner of the movie, complete with repeated keywords like “redemption” and, yes, “forgiveness.” This tendency to shove the main themes into the viewer’s face infects most of the scenes about Bill, his ex-wife, and their children, and makes the film feel more like a single-minded tract than a well-rounded story.
Even sadder, Life During Wartime provides its own counterexample through an early, fantastic scene between the slow-burning Hinds and an acid-tongued bar patron named Jacqueline, played by the great Charlotte Rampling. He tries to make small talk, but she cuts through his bullshit with her bile. She tells him about how her children treat her after her divorce, and Rampling’s delivery helps turn the scene into a mini-allegory for Bill’s overarching dilemma:
Jacqueline: They’ve decided I’m a villain. I’m a monster.
Bill: Why do they think that?
Jacqueline: Because I am a monster.
Bill: People… can’t help it… if they’re monsters.
Jacqueline: They can’t be forgiven either.
I wish every scene in the movie could’ve been that incisive and well-written. Instead, I had to settle for one vignette after another that devolved into mushy sobbing as characters averted each other’s gazes. And in the end, the movie just felt like the world’s heaviest trifle. None of the storylines were fleshed out as much as they deserved, but instead rambled on to an unsatisfying, pretentious end. I’m just grateful that Solondz brought back Mark Wiener (Rich Pecci), the nihilistic, computer-fixated brother of Dawn from Welcome to the Dollhouse who also showed up in Palindromes. In each film, he’s both a victim of the cruel jokes that pervade Solondz’s universe, and the only one hopeless enough to understand them; in short, he’s a fascinating recurring character.
So yes, Life During Wartime is a disappointment and wastes much of its potential. But I still recommend seeing it. Even a mediocre Solondz movie is better than none at all, and Life During Wartime has more than enough moments of wit, tragedy, and dark humor to justify its 96 minutes. See it, if only for Reubens’ breakdowns and Charlotte Rampling’s contorted face. Now, we just have to wait another year for Solondz’s next film, Dark Horse, which is going to star Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow. (Can you say “WIN”?) And maybe after that, he’ll get started on Happiness 3, and give his characters the fully realized endings they deserve.
[P.S. – Sorry about the Talking Heads reference in the title. I couldn’t resist.]