If it's crap ... We'll tell you
I suspect it's not out of the question that many of you are completely unfamiliar with the works of director/writer Todd Solondz. His films are high-minded social satire which have often been noted for their detailed characters and incredible performances. Oh, and rather more loudly been noted for dealing with some of the creepiest topics imaginable.
Take his infamous 1998 film "Happiness", for example, which examined in a stoic and humanistic tone characters committing acts of pedophilia, rape, suicide, murder, and obscene phone calls. Tough sell, right? Yet it was critically acclaimed and rightfully so. What an enormous task to ask your audience to feel any level of understanding or even sympathy for Dylan Baker's character, who molests children but draws the line at his own, or the deeply lonely Phillip Seymour Hoffman who can't stop making obscene phone calls to the object of his affection, but eventually realizes real love has been right in front of him all along. And yet, for some at least, Solondz's non-judgmental style of watching his deeply flawed performers (at least from his point of view, his characters tend to judge themselves harshly) exposes real humanity, at its most noble and at its most base, with a clarity few other directors have managed.
"Life During Wartime" is an interesting point in his career, marking the first sequel, of sorts, he's made. Its collection of stories takes characters from his previous films, largely "Happiness" (albeit with different actors in the roles and loose continuity) and picks up their tales years later. In the forefront are the three sisters from "Happiness": Trish (Allison Janney), Joy (Shirley Henderson), and Helen (Ally Sheedy). Trish is finally putting her life back together years after her ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) was put in prison for pedophilia. She hopes that her new boyfriend (Michael Lerner) is normal and that her youngest son, who is a bit odd and on the verge of his bar mitzvah, will come to like him. Bill is out of prison and is anxious to discover how his children are, especially his oldest son Billy (Chris Marquette), who he is desperate with hope that he isn't like him. Joy has married the obscene phone caller (Michael Kenneth Williams) who was once obsessed with her sister Helen, but he can't seem to stop his bad habit, and Joy heads off to Florida to spend time with Helen, and later Trish, but she keeps having hallucinatory conversations with an ex-suitor (Paul Reubens) who committed suicide after being spurned by her.
True to Solondz form, everybody is deeply flawed and broken, largely by the actions of their characters from the previous Solodnz films they appeared in. These regretful and afraid people are used here to ask whether true forgiveness is possible or whether the concept even has any real meaning at all. The director's own synopsis said this: "Friends, family, and lovers struggle to find love, forgiveness, and meaning in a war-torn world riddled with comedy and pathos". The film asks about the likelihood of being able to forgive AND forget, parsing the sentence, scrutinizing the plausibility of such a thing. It's a child on the verge of becoming a man who asks the film's central thematic question, that whether or not having this sort of forgiveness, as part of the definition of growing into maturity, should be extended to the 9/11 terrorists as well. Or, indeed, to his pedophiliac father. An emotionally loaded but completely valid question indeed, and one that Solondz alone would have the sheer bravado to ask.
Unfortunately, "Life During Wartime" isn't really a stand-alone film so much as a companion piece, an afterthought even, of "Happiness". Many of the relationships of the characters aren't very well clearly defined here and require remembering their stories from the previous movie. It's impossible to claim that a film as emotionally complex as that one didn't need an appendix, and clearly Solondz's feelings about his own characters has changed over time. It's really more significant as a footnote, perhaps even a turning point (time will tell) in Solondz's career than something to come at singularly. It's a shame because the performances, writing, and (of course) directing of "Life During Wartime" all deserve attention, but it's probably mainly going to come from the select crowd of those already following his career closely.
Since this is a Criterion release, I can't finish this off without mentioning the bonus features, traditionally well-stocked in their respectable release history. One of the most remarkable extras here is a 45 minute piece called, "Ask Todd" where the director answers questions mailed to him by viewers of the film. I wish every director/writer would include something similar. Also included is 30 minutes with the actors and 28 minutes with the cinematographer (getting into the serious specifics). Sure, it's not a huge barrage of stuff to sort through, but what there is = damn good.
Solondz's films aren't interested in exploiting human misery. Instead they get inside the heads of the untouchables and undesirables in society and do the unthinkable: portray them unflinchingly as being just as deep and complicated inside as anyone whose secrets aren't so heinous, instead of merely defining them in total by those secrets. Startling, disturbing, honest, courageous, Solondz's work stands alone in film and naturally has its huge fans (count me in) and its detractors, who are just as passionate about attacking it. I'm grateful for his work and ask those who turn away from his explorations of the dregs of humanity because they find it morally repugnant to sit through: WWJD? Regardless of your religious affiliation, is IS a big world of grey. Even the most despicable of criminals are still human and enormously complex beings. Solondz merely wants to know if we can live up to our own spoken high moral standards and learn to forgive even them. But can we?
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