Published Aug 26, 2010Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime opens with Joy (Shirley Henderson) at dinner with her husband, Allen (Michael K. Williams). They are crying, but trying to assure each other that they feel fine. Allen has seen hard times: "No more cocaine. No more crack. No more crack cocaine. No more sarcastic remarks or physical acts aimed at my boss… No more helping gang members with burglaries or armed robberies." But he hasn't been able to shake his urge to make obscene phone calls
Allen's list of offences is awfully sad, but so exaggerated that one's natural instinct is nervous laughter. This segment gains another strange dimension if you've seen the opening of Solondz's Happiness (1998), which featured the same set-up, but with Jon Lovitz as a scorned boyfriend. Allen is now in the Lovitz character's position, but in Happiness, he way played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think we can agree that Williams, a tall, facially scarred black man, is not Philip Seymour Hoffman.
What is Solondz doing? Does he intend the juxtaposition of Lovitz/Hoffman with Williams to be funny? There was nervous laughter with the audience I saw it with. Are we laughing because we don't expect a physically imposing black man to be depicted in such a pitiful way? Would we believe Allen would be involved with robberies and drugs if he were still played by Hoffman? What does this say about us?
Life During Wartime is another of Solondz's uncomfortable examinations beneath the surface of American society, but it's not among his most successful. There are scenes where I can feel Solondz trying too hard to push our buttons, like when Joy's sister, suburban mother Trish (Allison Janney), tells her ten-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) in a moment of romantic splendour that her new boyfriend, "Just touched me… and I got wet." Or when Timmy, after discovering that his father, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), is a convicted child molester, asks Trish if he might become "a faggot," and she gently assures him that he will not.
And I really hated the scene where Joy visits her other sister, a grotesque caricature of a narcissistic Hollywood screenwriter played by Ally Sheedy. When Joy delivers a line like, "Still… it must be neat going out with Keanu," I find myself sympathizing for the first time with those who accuse Solondz of being condescending to his characters.
But there are also moments that are shatteringly powerful. Many of them involve Bill, the paedophile played with chilling affability by Dylan Baker in Happiness, but played here by Ciaran Hinds, with a steeliness suggesting a man who has had to fend for himself in prison, and who has nothing to live for on the outside. He has an extraordinary sequence in a hotel with a lonely woman (Charlotte Rampling), who tells him, "Married, alone; it's the same thing," and he replies, "No. Alone is alone." And there is the climactic reunion between Bill and his oldest son.
Life During Wartime is the first Solondz film since Fear, Anxiety and Depression that I can't fully embrace. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it. The performances are exceptional (particularly an intense turn by Paul Reubens), Edward Lachman's sunny cinematography captures a certain kind of suburban artificiality and Solondz crafts a genuinely unpredictable narrative with a sense of suspense and danger.
Solondz is always poking around at the boundaries of society's permissiveness, looking for hypocrisy and unpleasant truths, and for this he remains one of film's most valuable artists. That he can sometimes miscalculate comes with the territory. (eOne)