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Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz's sequel to Happiness doesn't pull any punches, either.

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Kitchen conference: Dylan Riley Snyder and Allison Janney
  • Kitchen conference: Dylan Riley Snyder and Allison Janney

What's the difference between the social satires of the legendary fringe filmmaker John Waters and those of Todd Solondz, who's not nearly as famous?

Waters sees the clichés and niceties of everyday middle-class life as a grand mal façade, beneath which lie drag queens, dog shit and foul-mouthed housewives. He always seems to be outside of his own work looking in: His humor is broad, and after about 10 minutes of one of his films, you get the joke, over and over and over. He just wants us to have fun at his movies, and in real life as well.

For Solondz, who's more ambiguous, and who deploys his humor with disquieting precision, propriety is no joke: It's the means by which we perpetrate unspeakable cruelties on each other. Does he really care about our everyday horrors, or has he so completely given up on humanity and anyone who would even think of trying to salvage it all?

Frankly, I prefer Solondz, not because he's so depressing, but because he's harder to figure out. (N.B. Space limitations don't allow me to draw the interesting Coen brothers and the insufferable David Lynch into the discussion.)

Life in Wartime, Solondz's companion film to his masterpiece, Happiness, revolves around three Jewish sisters living in Florida, and it takes place today. But the war of his title is the war at home and within, and our other two current wars barely show up on his radar.

Eldest sister Trish (Allison Janney) has just met a nice-enough Jewish man (Michael Lerner) who, she confesses to her son Timmy, makes her wet when he touches her elbow, even though he's not really her type, and he voted for Bush and McCain ("but only because of Israel -- otherwise, he knows they're complete idiots"). Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is studying for his bar mitzvah, and he thinks his father, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), is dead -- until, one day at school, his friends tell him the truth: Just out of prison, Bill is a pedophile who went to jail for molesting boys.

The youngest sister, Joy (Shirley Henderson), is a social worker who rehabilitates criminals, and she's estranged from her husband, who makes filthy obscene phone calls. At a restaurant, their server recognizes his voice and spits on him, but Joy assures her that he's cured ("we even threw out the phone book"). In Florida, while visiting her family, she talks to an apparition of her mentally ill former lover (Paul Reubens). Middle sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), whom we don't get to know as well, was a successful poet until she decided that was "too easy," so now she's an Emmy-winning TV writer.

As the stories of Life During Wartime unfold, the drama grows bleaker and the comedy grows blacker. There is a central question: How do we forgive and forget, and can we even do one or the other? Bill breaks into his ex-family's home and hooks up with a bleak divorcee (Charlotte Rampling) whose ex-husband was gay. Does she have any kids? "Not any more," she tells Bill. "Just a pack of wolves, and they're out for blood." He says that only losers ask for forgiveness. She says that only losers expect to get it.

Solondz's characters are joyless, or they think they're happy when we know they're not, and they have no psychological history, so all we learn about their pasts are the facts. Life During Wartime has some penetrating laughs, which come when these self-centered people say things without realizing how horrible they are. Why did Trish lie to Timmy about his father being dead? "I wanted you to grow up free and happy, as if he were dead." What happens, Timmy asks, if a pervert tries to put his penis into his tushie? "Nobody," his mother says, "is ever going to put anything inside you." (Gay anxiety and homophobia are subtexts of the film.)

Those dialogues, I think, separate Waters from Solondz. When Waters has people say something ridiculous, you know he knows it's ridiculous. Although Solondz sometimes does overstate -- writing dialogue that not even gifted actors like Janney and Rampling can make authentic -- his characters say things that people actually say and mean. He seems to have no hope for us, and I'm fine with that point of view: His films are funny, original and absorbing to watch, and filled with countless little observations about everyday selfishness, compliance and dysfunction. He's an unsettling filmmaker in a culture that craves disingenuous happy endings.

 

Starts Fri., Aug. 27. Regent Square

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