There’s not much that Todd Solondz doesn’t excel at as a filmmaker in this new work, perhaps making up titles. Life During Wartime doesn’t tell you much, except it means all life is wartime. Above all it’s about the screenplay, and this one is as dazzling, shocking, and packed with riveting dialogue as Pulp Fiction’s, but without the violence. (The violence is repressed, as in ordinary life.) From the first scene between Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire) and Joy (English actress Shirley Henderson), a one-year wedding anniversary dinner in a restaurant when she discovers the man she’s married is still a pervert (she flees back to her mother and sisters in Florida and California), the dialogue is cranked up as in A Clockwork Orange to an acid-trip intensity. Solondz gets the maximum from his actors, and has assembled a fascinating cast. Even the brief turns are memorable, such as those of Charlotte Rampling as Jacqueline, a desperate woman in need of sex, and Paul Reubens, of Peewee Herman fame, as Joy’s deceased former suitor Andy, who reappears to her for several troubling conversations.
The images, bright and yellow-tinged, are heightened but not caricatural versions of everyday Americana, ranging from a middle-class Florida kitchen to a fab Hollywood pad. The sense of precise control the director achieves overlays and contrasts with the edge of hysteria in the characters’ emotional lives. If the casting is virtuoso, the beautifully modulated cinematography of Ed Lachman (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Virgin Suicides) is one more illustration of Solodnz’s mastery of the whole production of making a film.
Most of the characters are freely carried over from Solondz’s most important previous film, his 1998 Happiness some ten years older here but some more, some less, aged and with completely different actors playing them. This is a family that suffers from dysfunction — but there is also normality. Trish (Allison Janey) has three children, and has met a very “normal” man, a lonely divorcee, Harvey (Michael Lerner), and they’re in love and want to marry. Her 13-year-old boy Timmy (Dylan Snyder), a composed, preternaturally articulate boy, is about to be bar mitzvahed. Joy is Trish’s sister, and turns up. She also sees their mother, Mona (Renee Taylor). Later she goes to California and sees their other sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy). These scenes are skillfully interwoven with the central ones directly or indirectly involving Timmy.
Harvey is truly “normal,” but then there’s Bill (Irish stage actor Cieran Hinds), who is just being released from prison, where he has served a long sentence for pedophile acts. Bill is the father of Trish’s three children, but she has told everyone he’s dead. After Bill visits older brother Billy (Chris Marquette) at college, to assure himself the sex crime gene hasn’t been passed on, Timmy finds out about his father.
Solondz is exceptionally good at dialogue, and it can be jaw-dropping and hilarious, but Life During Wartime is further strengthened by the ingenious ways the characters and their conversations interlock. If there is a theme, and at one or two points this is presented almost too didactically, it is forgiveness (which was the original working title). Picking up Bill in a hotel bar Jacqueline (Rampling), who’s hardened and brutal, says “Only losers ask for forgiveness. Only losers expect to get it.” But Timmy and Harvey’s pessimistic son Mark (Rich Pesci) discuss seriously whether you can forgive and forget, and how it might be necessary to forget without forgiving. As for Bill, Trish’s view is “Once a perv, always a perv.”
Those who find Solondz’s material too shocking or bitter need to consider that confronting such horrors as pedophilia head-on with grim but sometimes hilarious humor may be a kind of provisional forgiveness of humanity’s worse faults. The movie seems to skirt on the edge of the difficult question of what’s forgivable and what’s not. And thus in Life During Wartime an already brilliantly original filmmaker has moved perceptively (but subtly) in the direction of maturity and mellowness. There’s still a lot of specific stuff that’s topical and funny, more than you can put into any review.
Timmy (not present in Happiness) is really the central character, in the best position to change and change others. Because his Bar Mitzvah is coming, he considers himself to be almost “a man.” He is horrified to learn both of his father’s true identity and his mother’s lying about it, and terrified that he might be a “faggot” too, and now, thanks to his mother’s warning, terrified of the idea of being “touched” by a (big, grown up, old) man. Bill provides a shadowy, haunting counterpart to the brighter scenes of Trish and Timmy. His encounter with his older son Billy is surprisingly intense, perhaps the most real moment, because its emotional content is more wordless. Again and again and in many different ways the film astounds with its dialogue scenes, especially one-on-one. The operative technique is not wit but surprise. Not all the moments work equally well; Bill as a character may be too heavy-handed, a bit of a waste of the brilliant actor Cieran Hinds (who has played a pedophile murderer on stage). But the way the screenplay interlocks and flows this from mattering too much, and all the scenes work separately (another link with Tarantino).
Joy’s encounter with successful, but completely unhappy and mean Hollywood sister Helen is an illustration of how people aren’t who they seem, but more than that is another spot-on illustration of subtle sisterly in-fighting. The threat of bodily harm with an Emmy statuette is one of many laugh-to-keep-from-crying moments in the movie. Todd Solodnz achieves mastery here, and has made one of the best American films of the year.
DIRECTOR: TODD SOLODNZ
CAST: ALLISON JANEY, ALLY SHEEDY, CIERAN HINDS
RUNNING TIME: 98 min