on 23 May 2011
11 years after Happiness, his poisonous stab at moral absolutism, Todd Solondz returned with this equally bleak sequel, a continuation of the all-American domestic grotesque. The characters return, except now played by different actors (including a bleary Paul "Pee Wee" Reubens), as does Solondz' ability to challenge expectations with disarming directness and surgical precision.
This is a less consistent film than its predecessor, particularly in terms of tone. Happiness harboured an almost garish John Waters trash aesthetic, whereas Wartime often shifts into something more sombrely lit and handsome, even entering noir territory at times, as when Ciaran Hinds' Bill and Charlotte Rampling's Jacqueline meet in a whisky-coloured bar to do semantic battle before indulging in a bout of loveless sex.
The characters are mostly horror movie monsters masked in the fascia of suburban admissibility - none more so than Trish (Allison Janney), the selfish mad-mom who is delighted by the fallacy of the nuclear ideal, lusting after "normal". Her son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), is the traumatised voice of reason: a humanist on the cusp of corruption. Then there is Joy (Shirley Henderson), a deep-feeling adult alone amidst the animal chaos: frail, fragile and bereft (in mind and body); in search of absent metaphysical guidance; a closed book desperate to do good; desperate to stop pretending any more.
Loneliness, rape, suicide and despair all echo in a bubble of carefully constructed sentimentality. Wartime doesn't quite carry the joke all the way. Certain latter scenes, particularly involving Hinds' recently-released Bill, are played disconcertingly straight. But then this is a film about the pathology of forgiveness (the film's former title), the corrosive nature of trauma, and the final consolation of repression and faith - themes in which perhaps even Mr Solondz couldn't find the humour.
"You die for me and I will know you love me," says Allen (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams) from the grave. No one in American cinema is better than Solondz at highlighting fickleness and absurdity of human interaction, and the paradoxes we contrive for ourselves. And although it can be wearying to endure such an indictment, we will always need filmmakers willing to float like faecal matter in Hollywood's homogenous soup.
on 31 May 2010
The prospect of sequel to your favourite film can be a fraught business. Whilst obviously exciting, a misfire can not only be a huge disappointment, but also sully cherished memories of the original. It's not a problem I ever expected to encounter as a fan of Happiness, the late 90s hugely controversial, cult indie. It didn't make much money for starters. But Todd Solondz, hardly a director beholden to what's maketable, has decided to revisit his seminal masterpiece with this follow up.
It's roughly ten years on, and we begin with a fraught scene between Joy and Allen, who we now learn are married. The immediately striking thing is that Solondz has recast every role, so Allen, originally played as a ball of shyness and pent up sexual frustration by white actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is now portrayed by black actor Michael K. Williams. This Allen is still shy, but now also a hard drug user and wannabe gangster. If that looks kind of racist written down, such politically incorrect provocation is textbook Solondz, but there's a further intertextuality at work here as Williams also portrayed gangster Omar in The Wire. Shirley Henderson channels something of Jane Adams' original sensitivity, but also something of Harry Potter's Moaning Myrtle in her sudden outbursts of malice.
We also revisit Joy's family. Sister Trish begins a relationship with a lonely widower, but her attempts to forget her own marriage are sabotaged when son Timmy discovers that his father is not dead, but rather about to be released from prison where he was serving time as a sex offender. That man, Bill Maplewood, (Ciarán Hinds in probably the film's standout performance) hopes to reconnect with his other son Billy, following his release. Joy meanwhile, reconnects with mother Mona and sister Helen, now a screenwriter fraternising with 'Salman' and romancing 'Keanu', but apparently still unsatisified.
Some of the characters seem largely unaltered, others appear very different. Trish, largely prim and proper in Happiness, is sassed up by Alison Janney to the extent that she's quite happy talking about her sex life with her twelve year old son. Bill, previously an approachable, all-American dad, is transformed to a tortured, mournful spirit by Hinds, stalking the people who would forget him.
Solondz has form here. His previous pic Palindromes not only featured existing characters from Welcome To The Dollhouse, (Harvey and Mark Weiner, who also return here) but also featured an array of actors and actresses portraying main character Aviva. The dichotomy of familiarity and disconnection this creates has given Solondz's films an increasingly nightmarish quality, quite different to the soap opera conventions he subverted in Storytelling and Happiness.
The other big difference from Happiness is that not a whole lot happens here. What feels like a large portion the film is spent observing Joy and Bill in desolate hotel rooms and through deserted streets. The film is mainly concerned with the damage wrought on these character's psyches by the events of Happiness. All of them carry ghosts, and in some quite startling scenes, those ghosts are made literal: Paul 'Pee Wee Herman' Reubens plays Andy, who died in Happiness. It definitely feels like a continuation, and I'm not sure how much it can be enjoyed as a stand alone.
There are flaws here. Some of the recast actors fare better than others. Mark Weiner, always imbued with a stoic dignity by Matthew Faber, becomes a one note joke character in the hands of Rich Pecci. Michael Lerner and Allison Janney are often very entertaining, but Solondz's most satiric dialogue can feel clunky if not played perfectly. Hinds though is superb, his scenes with son Billy and with Charlotte Rampling as sexually aggressive older woman, and fellow self described 'monster', are easily the best things in the film.
The film probably doesn't have the power to change people's perceptions of variant sexualities in the way Happiness did. And attempts to draw parallels with the War in Terror feel forced and confusing (pedophiles are terrorists?). On the whole though, it's a worthwhile and soulful look at damage done. A further word of warning, Solondz seems to nod to overt comedy less and less. Life During Wartime, as with Palindromes before it, contains very little to make you laugh out loud or even smile. It feels slightly redundant to say it, but this is bleak stuff.