LIFE DURING WARTIME (2009, directed by Todd Solondz, 98 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Todd Solondz returns to the unmoored characters from his 1998 film Happiness to find them further adrift in his latest feature, Life During Wartime. Resurrecting the sisters Joy, Trish and Helen from Happiness’ parade of sad sacks, Solondz again studies characters whose lives fall disappointingly short of where they imagine. It’s Joy’s journey that gives us a tour through these tortured souls’ live. Played by the meek-voiced Shirley Henderson, Joy travels down to Florida to reunite with her mother (veteran actress Renee Taylor) and Trish (The West Wing’s Allison Janney) after she discovers her husband Allen (memorably played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness, here played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams) is still compulsively making obscene phone calls. Joy finds her sister Trish still shell-shocked from the discovery that her husband was a pedophile (she tells her younger son Timmy his father is dead) and her successful sister Helen (played by Ally Sheedy) is self-involved and bitter despite fame as a TV screenwriter.
Happiness drew from the isolation of the ‘Jersey suburbs but even as the characters move to the promised land of ‘Florida (played convincingly by Puerto Rico), the isolation follows them, along with some assorted ghosts, both real and imagined, that come along to further entrap them. The colors may be a little brighter (courtesy of cinematographer Ed Lachman of True Stories) but their cheeriness just serves to taunt the characters, whose situation grow more and more grim as the film progresses. It’s a modern isolation that is on display here, none of the characters has a real friend in which they can confide and Solondz mainly shoots his figures alone in their perfectly composed frames.
And none of the characters are more alone than Bill. Played by Dylan Baker in Happiness, played here by the more soulful Ciaran Hinds, Bill is Trish’s pedophile ex-husband, released from jail with little but his old wallet and its coffee house punch cards. He’s haunted by fleeting visions of a green suburban landscape but is in forced exile from that dream. He drifts around, first into a one-night stand with Charlotte Rampling’s blizzard of bitterness Jacqueline, then out to his older son Billy’s college where he finally confronts those left in the wreckage of his past.
The film is full of weirdly intense scenes like this, a mother discusses a new-found sensual pleasure with her twelve year old son, a lover confronts the ghost of a partner who committed suicide and a child confronts an adult he mistakenly suspects of being a molester. Solondz allows the awkwardness and the inarticulate fumbling of these confrontations to linger, leaving a messiness that explains why so many people find his films so distasteful and hard-to-swallow. Life During Wartime settles into a certain mournfulness though, that gives Solondz’s story a slightly gentler, more empathetic mood.
This is the least theoretically-driven of Solondz’s post-Happiness films, feeling less like a thesis on character manipulation and more like the chapter of a long-running soap opera. Still, the characters seem a little too tightly controlled; Solondz’s world is too oxygen-deprived to allow his characters even the hint of salvation. Six features into his career shows that misery is Solondz’s over-arching theme, yet the details of his world might be a little more vivid if some contrasting hope was at least a possibility.