|Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson |
in Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime
But then again, maybe not. Solondz’s view of modern American humanity, from Welcome to the Dollhouse, through Happiness and Storytelling and Palindromes, has never really changed, though it has yielded uneven results. He is unsparing in his attack on the complacencies of the suburban upper-middle class, but to describe his attitude as cruel or contemptuous is to miss the compassion and the almost rabbinical ethical seriousness that drives his inquiries. And to take a movie like Life During Wartime as satire is to simplify its intentions and effects. Solondz exaggerates in the direction of mockery, yes, but his lurid colors, emphatic musical effects and dead-center framing also betray a commitment to melodrama that can only be sincere.
So as Joy suffers, you suffer along with her. Played by the mousy-voiced, quick-eyed Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies), she is one of three sisters whose quest for contentment, fulfillment and normalcy sits at the center of this episodic exploration of failure and disappointment. Joy, played by Jane Adams in Happiness, has married Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), and the first scene of Life During Wartime reconfigures the opening of Happiness, in which Adams and Jon Lovitz sat in an opulent restaurant acting out one of the most painful dates in movie history.
How you experience this scene will depend somewhat on your memory of Happiness. In revisiting that earlier film more than a decade later, Solondz has changed the cast entirely and allowed the characters to age at different rates, so that the events of Happiness occupy different phases of each one’s past. (Lovitz’s character, now a ghost, is played here by Paul Reubens.) Allen (originally played, with indelible creepiness, by Philip Seymour Hoffman) has tried to mend his perverted ways, with Joy’s help.
Joy’s sisters, Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy), have left New Jersey hoping to put their own lives in order. Helen, a writer, has cut off all ties with her family, while Trish has started a new life in Florida, telling her younger son and daughter that their father, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), in prison for molesting children, has died. Trish has a new suitor, a solid older gentleman named Harvey (Michael Lerner), whom she likes for his sensitivity and his steadfast support of Israel. “He voted for Bush and McCain,” she explains to Joy. “But only because of Israel. He knows those people are idiots.”
Meanwhile, Trish’s freckle-faced, wide-eyed son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) prepares for his bar mitzvah, at which he plans to talk about the relationship between manhood and forgiveness. Bill has been released on parole, and he wanders across the country, from a sad sexual encounter (with Charlotte Rampling) in a hotel to an awkward reunion with his elder son, Billy (Chris Marquette), in Billy’s college dorm.
It is all perfectly dreadful and at times appallingly funny. Solondz winds thin tendrils of narrative around the dinner-table conversations, and allows everyone a chance to be earnestly foolish, unguardedly selfish and also, almost by accident, cruelly honest. The actors handle the awkwardness beautifully, each finding a way to make Solondz’s meticulous, slightly mannered dialogue sound like natural speech. Not that realism is exactly the intention here. Shades of the Happiness cast seem to flicker across the frame until you can’t quite be sure who is who. How did Dylan Baker turn into Ciaran Hinds?
Much as Life During Wartime draws you back into the fictional past of Happiness — and to a moment that looks in retrospect like the high-water mark of American independent cinema — it is also preoccupied, albeit obliquely, with more recent real-world events. The title is an indication of this concern, as is Solondz’s evocation of the ambient, interminable anxiety of the post-9/11 world.
Trish’s occasional outbursts about terrorism seem to displace her fear of more intimate disturbances, and it is Timmy, tumbling out of innocence, who grasps the link between his broken family and the dysfunctional republic for which they stand. He has the last word in the movie, a fitting and troubling epitaph for the first decade of the 21st century and the most complex and resonant punch line Solondz has yet produced: “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.” Should you laugh or cry?