Thursday, August 26, 2010

Life During Wartime

Perhaps the most important thing to say in my case when reviewing "Life During Wartime" is that I have never seen any other Todd Solondz film (although I do have somewhat of a knowledge of the plot of "Happiness," which is supposedly precedes this film narratively). Todd McCarthy has said that one can go cold into this film, and that's exactly what I did.

However, even if one sees the other film, "Life During Wartime" (which as a Solondz n00b, I find tone-wise and dialogue-wise somewhat reminiscent of Miranda July's pretty much unfinishable "Me and You and Everyone We Know") I don't believe delivers. It feels incomplete, with an ending that can be seen on some level as final but not entirely. I can wonder if there will be a third part, but even so, this ending doesn't work for me. It casts a long shadow on the film, which is not for the best, as it leaves me finding strands of the plot left perhaps too loose. I have no idea if certain characters had illuminating roles in "Happiness." I find, though, that with the bulk critical reception of the film being somewhat close to mine, I don't think I'm alone in the area of having experienced an absence of catharsis.

I'm painting the film as much worse than it actually is with that last paragraph. At its best, it's very wrenching. It covers a pervert, Allen (Michael K. Williams) and a pedophile, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) and the emotional wreckage that they've laid for their loved ones. But this is a somewhat generous description of the time that Solondz allots Allen, who is in the film's first scene and in very little otherwise. The opening, which lays out a background of strange, wavy upholstery, offers hope that Allen may have "recovered" from his problem, although his marriage to Joy (Shirley Henderson) looks like it's fully broken down. But even that comfort is screamingly shattered, in a way that I'll not say to keep it just as surprising to you as it was to me. This scene also establishes the basic game plan for the rest of the film: no one can talk to anyone without something going wrong.

The film then goes to Trish (lovely Allison Janney) as she is finally dating a "normal" guy, Harvey (Michael Lerner), who she values more for that quality than for appearance or anything. Her ex-husband is Bill. And her son is Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), a kid who, as my friend said, fears pedophilia and, with people bullying him about his father, learns that his mother lied to him about Bill having died.

Bill is very much alive, having a one-night stand with Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling), who considers herself a monster and will not budge from that opinion. She has only two scenes, as well, a character who leaves of the picture as soon as she came in. Bill also visits his son, Billy (Chris Marquette), who emotionally he harmed extremely in his childhood. This is a scene that I thought Marquette played well for the most part, though I thought he might have slipped (though perhaps not) towards the end; it's hard to gauge, just as it is for the characters.

Joy is explored deeply as well, as she packs up from New Jersey and goes to visit Trish, her mother, and her other sister, the apparent 4-time Emmy winner Helen (Ally Sheedy), who is very conflicted and, as a result, as my friend said, "cold." Again, Solondz throws another character in for a short period of time, and doesn't even have her say goodbye to us, which he did with Jacqueline; we only hear her having sex through the walls. Plus, these scenes are somewhat soporific (though that may just be my lack of sleep showing). Another facet of Joy's life is that she has visions of her ex-lover Andy (Paul Reubens, who's burnt out and looks more like the creep he was at one point in real life than Pee-Wee Herman), who tempts her before just yelling or trying to sexually assault her. (My friend says that he's coming back from the dead, which is probably true, but I didn't think of him as being that way.)

I shouldn't be surprised that Solondz doesn't end the film (that perhaps sometimes can feel obvious in its quest to be, as the critics have been calling it, "shocking," what with adults accidentally explaining sexual encounters to their children and the like, although, to be sure, this is the name of the Solondz game) completely at piece. But it will be easier for me, as they say in the film, to forget this film rather than to forgive it, although there are parts that definitely work, like Hinds' performance and the cinematography by Edward Lachman. Solondz repeatedly introduces characters and sends them off without enough. Along with the characters mentioned above, Trish's daughter Chloe (Emma Hinz) is only given the (however funny) attributes of (as my friend said) "depression" and karaoke singing. Even Trish and Harvey are left without too much explanation, although Harvey's final scene with Timmy is heartbreaking and well played by Solondz (as well as, I believe, Snyder, whose performance I have some minor problems with but not a ton). "Life During Wartime," while you're watching it, manages to keep most of these problems with characters away from your mind, as it is, as said before, nicely put together (with some good contrasts). But that's not to stop it from seeming somewhat problematic once you've stopped. C+


Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

Ally Sheedy -- now that's an actress I haven't seen in years. I have to admit -- and I'm showing my age here -- I still can't read her name without thinking "brat pack."

I have avoided this director, because I'm sure his work wouldn't appeal to me. I did enjoy your review. Do you think the viewer's "coldness" toward the story/characters was intentional on the director's part?

Nick Duval said...

It definitely is intentional. Solondz thrives on making his audience and his characters feel uncomfortable/awkward. No one in the film, not even the kid, can be entirely painted well.

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

That's what I guessed, from what little I know about Solondz. He wants you to see atrocities happen on screen and not care, provoking a painful kind of self-examination. Perhaps he wants to get under our skin in this way so we'll really grasp the evils of media violence and ponder how desensitized we've become to it. Interesting, but not for me.