by Michael Joshua Rowin

Life During Wartime
Dir. Todd Solondz, U.S., IFC Films

If he were half the incisive social critic he thinks he is, one could make a case for Todd Solondz. In an age when such films as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno adjust their characters’ neuroses into palatable “eccentricities,” a healthy dose of authentically savage, dark humor would serve American independent film well in challenging liberal complacency and political correctness. Given the infrequent cinematic output of Terry Zwigoff, bitter, parodic, button-pushing misanthropy is rarely represented at the local art house. But Solondz has not helped fill the void. If anything, he precipitated it.

When in 1998 Happiness became a succès de scandale for its black comedy of pedophilia, suicide, antisocial behavior, masturbation, divorce, murder, and, of course, the superficial normalcy of the American suburbs, it also tested the limits of audience self-satisfaction: how far would viewers go to prove themselves above it all? Because besides one or two instances of complicating viewer identification with the sickest and most twisted of characters—most notably Dylan Baker’s disturbingly sympathetic child rapist—Happiness offered a newly perfected form of ingratiating freakshow cinema, riding the then-current wave of shock entertainment (a year earlier had seen the release of Gummo and South Park) designed not to upset and provoke thought, but to create exclusive in-clubs of those who could take it and those who could not. Happiness titillated more than it alienated, and the Alan Balls and Diablo Codys of the world eventually took notice, exploiting what they could of its stereotype-dependent topicality by melodramatizing or else sweetening it, ultimately repackaging the bile as feel-good sentimentality or “look closer” profundity.

While a significant portion of American independent film lives, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in his shadow, Solondz himself has seen his star drastically diminish. To his credit, this increased marginalization came about in part when Solondz recognized the dead end of Happiness. Instead of replicating his success, he took stock of it by questioning his own creative intentions three years later in the second section of his bifurcated Storytelling. Though that film took potshots at post-Happiness hits American Beauty and American Movie, the film’s peak of self-doubt arrives when Paul Giamatti’s directorial stand-in protests, “I love these people,” a purposefully unconvincing defense in light of the fact that “these people,” these Happiness-esque suburban phonies, are nearly all deservedly killed off at film’s end.

Yet even within his own work, Solondz failed to follow up on this self-investigation. Moving pictures speak louder than on-screen mea culpas, and the other reason Solondz fell is because his ambitions grew while his methods remained just the same (No wonder Matthew Faber’s deterministic Mark Weiner so confidently dismisses the notion of personal improvement in Palindromes). Storytelling attempted to tackle passive-aggressive racism and abusive privilege, but also reveled in its Mexican, Jewish, and handicapped caricatures; the woeful Palindromes set its sights on the abortion wars and the red and blue state divide, but once again looked down its nose at virtually all its cardboard cut-outs, including a barely pubescent girl whose sole desire is to produce babies. (Did Solondz really believe Aviva was representative or reflective of anything substantially complex about the abortion debate?)

With Storytelling and Palindromes, Solondz revisited his past in an unsuccessful effort to take on grander themes and issues, including the difficult task of autocritique; with Life During Wartime, his new sequel to Happiness, Solondz reenacts the crime by reapplying its predecessor’s worst, most oblivious tendencies, and in the process admits almost total artistic defeat. It’s several years later and the vast majority of the principal characters from the first movie, this time played entirely by new actors—some uncannily similar to the originals in appearance, some radically different—are still miserable. Naïve pushover Joy (Shirley Henderson, somehow even more fragile than Jane Adams) is currently married to Allen (Michael K. Williams), Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s mumbling, sweaty, perverted crank caller in Happiness, now an African-American ex-con, former drug addict, and, yes, perverted crank caller who swears he can change but continues to engage in illicit behavior. After escaping to Florida to forget her previous marriage to pedophile Bill (Ciarán Hinds), Joy’s sister, patronizing, materialistic hausfrau Trish (Allison Janney), is dating Welcome to the Dollhouse’s “normal” Harvey Weiner (Michael Lerner). Bill himself has been released from jail and tracks down estranged, college-aged Billy (Chris Marquette), the son he traumatized by drugging and raping his middle-school friend. Meanwhile, younger brother Timmy (Dylan Snyder) is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and must deal with the long-suppressed reality that his father is not dead, as he’s been previously told, but an irredeemable criminal “faggot.”

Time and time again the source of Solondz’s undoing is his inability to resist the temptation of the easy, witless, hateful joke. He doesn’t merely aim for the broad side of the barn; his jokes repeatedly splat upon the sky-obstructing façade of the industrial silo. When Trish tells her young son she’s in love, she explains, “He’s a real man . . . he has this power . . . he made me wet,” and compares her sexual reawakening to a budding tulip. After catching herself engaging in such candid talk, the conversation continues:

Timmy: Are you still wet?
Trish: I’ll get a paper towel.

How naughtily, awkwardly irreverently inappropriate!

That’s the film’s third scene; it gets worse. Previously played by Lara Flynn Boyle and here embodied by Ally Sheedy, youngest sister Helen is once again a self-absorbed, melodramatic, emotional bully, but now her narcissism is enabled by a rising career as a television screenwriter. How does Solondz impart Helen’s unflattering traits? “I was feeling crushed by the enormity of my success” she complains to Joy in her opulent mansion. “Still, it must be neat to be dating Keanu,” Joy offers. “There’s nothing neat about it,” says Helen, verbally placing the back of her hand to her forehead, “And we’re still a country at war.” How stupidly shallow! The film’s low point comes when Joy leaves a message on her and Allen’s machine admitting she made a mistake when she left him and saying she’ll be coming home so they can renew their marriage. The camera pans from the machine across the bedroom, and you can see the punchline coming from a verst away. Sure enough, Allen is lying in a pool of his own blood, dead from a gunshot wound. This is the sort of predictable and lazy black joke a film school novice might find original and surprising. From a six-film veteran it’s inexcusable.

Last year’s A Serious Man received criticism in many quarters for the usual cinematic sins supposedly practiced by the Coen brothers throughout their career: cold technical proficiency, superiority over their characters, even Jewish self-hatred. I dare anyone who reads A Serious Man’s tragicomic examination of moral and existential anxiety as condescending pranksterism to watch Life During Wartime and witness the real thing in action (It’s interesting to note that Jewish-American culture is far in the background in Happiness—the central family’s last name is the WASPy Maplewood; in Life During Wartime that culture is the conspicuous cause of so many of the characters’ rottenness). For a film ostensibly about forgiveness Solondz’s new film is obnoxiously uncompassionate, lacking the combination of severity and sympathy that fuels even the bleakest satires, and substituting in its place a pitiful revulsion. For A Serious Man’s central loser, Larry Gopnik, the grotesque unfairness of the world is a test of character, even if he fails; for almost all of Life During Wartime’s sorry cases, the grotesque unfairness of the world is something in which to wallow. A key to understanding the film is Joy’s occupation of helping reform ex-cons. Trish asks her why she doesn’t do something more productive, like helping the victims of rapists rather than the rapists themselves. Solondz poses an interesting question here, one that could be followed by a funny—even darkly funny— response, but he never allows Joy a retort. That’s because her work echoes her life; just as she can’t change her creepy husband, she can’t change anything else about the wicked world, and her refusal to acknowledge this demonstrates how pathetically deluded she truly is and therefore that she should be held in contempt. Solondz has not one but two exes—including Paul Reubens as Andy, previously realized by Jon Lovitz—haunt her from beyond the grave to tell her she’s a piece of shit.

Life During Wartime’s only bright point, so to say, is Bill Maplewood’s storyline. Baker already leant dignity to the role in Happiness, but here a much tougher Hinds plays Bill with tortured contriteness. En route to Billy, Bill meets equally hardened lounge regular Charlotte Rampling, and both of them bond over their place in the world as monsters. This is some of Solondz’s best writing. When Bill asks the woman if she’s married, she replies, “Married. Alone. Same thing.” “No,” he corrects, “Alone is alone.” Between the two of them, Solondz’s merciless understanding of forgiveness finds succinct expression without any gratuitous piling on: “People can’t help it if they’re monsters.” “They can’t be forgiven.” “Only losers expect forgiveness.” This exchange and Bill’s confrontation with his son subtly meld morbid humor and dead straight moral reckoning, but their effect is negated by Timmy’s coming-of-age tale. Though he’s the smartest character in the film and the one who directly asks what it means to forgive and forget under the most extreme circumstances—as in Palindromes, 9/11 is used as a test limit—his inquiries are trashed by classic Solondz tawdriness. If Timmy’s so smart, how does he mistake would-be father figure Harvey’s sincere affection for a pedophilic advance? Because he’s a typical Solondz schmuck. The budding masculine anxiety triggered by the return of the repressed father (fighter plane posters in his bedroom are the none-to-subtle sight gag indicating his worship of heterosexual phallic authority) cannot account for such a narrative contrivance. It’s sloppy, meaningless plotting, an embarrassing pretense in a film that chides people for pretending problems don’t exist where they do.

Life During Wartime may be a repeat offender for a director who hasn’t done too well of late either commercially or critically, but nobody should gloat over Solondz’s waned status. Intermittent moments throughout his oeuvre hint at the spot-on satirist he might have been: Baker’s deadpan killing spree fantasy in Happiness; the cold-blooded coed who’s obviously fucking her professor disingenuously intoning, “Anyway, what do I know, don’t listen to what I say,” after tearing apart a corny short story in front of an entire fiction writing seminar in Storytelling; Palindromes’ one funny joke, an abortion doctor¬-murdering pedophile turned Christian convert asking “How many times do I have to be born again?”

Excepting a few such anomalous moments (and the fact that, even though minimalist and theatrical, it’s also by far Solondz’s best-looking film, lensed by Ed Lachman using the bold hi-def voluminousness of the RED camera), Life During Wartime continues one of the great delusional cases in contemporary American cinema. Forcing his audience into awkward spots and difficult sympathies, Solondz constantly lets them off the hook with pop fly sarcasm, only to flaunt his courageous acumen. “Some people will of course accuse me of misanthropy and cynicism,” he’s stated. “I can’t celebrate humanity, but I’m not out to indict it either. I just want to expose certain truths.” Fine. But what are the truths of Life During Wartime? That fame-mongers are vain and needy? That bad people keep on doing bad things, despite their best intentions? That the young daughters of neglectful Jewesses take karaoke lessons and are doped up on meds? Though he may want to play in a large field of ethical conundrum, Solondz lacks the philosophic or comedic equipment to subversively do so—once more he has exposed himself as a simple, simple director with simple, simple ideas.