Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2009)

6. Life During Wartime

With “Palindromes,” Todd Solondz revisited the characters of “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” in a round about sort of way. For his next film, the director would continue this referential tone. “Life During Wartime,” originally known as “Forgiveness,” is a direct sequel to “Happiness,” probably Solondz’ second most popular film. A sequel to such a film is an interesting propositions. What would the dysfunctional cast of “Happiness’ be doing a decade later? Yet Todd would put his own stamp on the entire concept of sequels. “Life During Wartime,” presumably not named after the Talking Heads song, receive slightly better reviews then “Palindromes,” won a few awards, and was the first of Solondz’ films to be accepted into the prestigious Criterion Collection. This is an enthusiasm for the film that I can not share. The movie finds the director in a very odd mood.

Roughly a decade after the events of “Happiness,” we pick back up with the three Jordan sisters. Joy continues to be unlucky in love and optimism has started to fail after years of life trampling on her. She has since married Allen, the troubled obscene phone caller from “Happiness,” but the marriage is collapsing. Joy is quite literally haunted by her relationship failures of the past. Helen has retreated from the family, living in California as an award winning television writer. Trish, meanwhile, has joined her mom in Florida. She has met a man named Harvey and is impressed by his normalcy, rushing into marriage with him. Trish’s youngest son, Timmy, is old enough now that he’s beginning to have questions about his absent father. When he discovers that his father is a convicted pedophile, and has recently been released from prison, Timmy begins to have some troubling questions about life and whether it’s possible to forgive and forget.

Even though “Life During Wartime” is a sequel to “Happiness” and features most of the main characters, it features none of the same actors. This does not appear to be a financial choice, an issue of not being to get the same actors back, but rather a creative decision. As in “Palindrome,” Solondz is switching characters’ ethnicity and appearance around to affect audiences’ perspective of them. Allen was originally played by Caucasian, overweight, and schmuck-ish Philip Seymour Hoffman in. In “Life During Wartime,” the same character is played by Michael K. Williams who is - if you hadn't noticed - black, tall, lean, and intimidating. Yet Solondz did not seem content to simply revisit his “Happiness” cast. “Life During Wartime” also brings back a few character from “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” It might go unnoticed at first. Trish’s new suitor is named Harvey but, we soon discovered, has the last name Wiener. As in Dawn Wiener. Harvey’s oldest son is Mark, seeming to imply that this is, indeed, Dawn’s dad. Yet they act completely different, making me wonder if they’re even meant to be the same characters. Either this whole practice is some sort of meta commentary on how the viewer interrupts fictional characters or Solondz just likes using the same names.

The Jordan family has undergo some changes in the years since “Happiness” but, in other ways, remain the same. The film’s opening mirrors that of “Happiness,” with Joy at dinner with a man. He gifts her a gold ashtray that is embossed with her name. Joy continues to assume the best of people, finding work as a councilor for rehabilitating convicts. This seems to explain why she’s married the troubled Allen. In the opening minutes, we see that Joy has forgiven Allen of countless trespasses. He has a history of drug abuse and petty crime. As the scene continues, we discover that Allen has not quit his habit of making obscene phone calls. Years of continued abuse from the world has worn down Joy’s optimism. She’s a shell of her former self. Instead of strumming her guitar and singing about happiness, she writes a song about whether it’s possible to forgive those who hurt us. Squeaky-voiced Shirley Henderson has stepped in for Jane Adams and, appropriately, seems far more frail in the part.

“Life During Wartime” is also about the past coming back to haunt us in unexpected ways. An interesting choice Solondz made was to bring back the character of Andy. Played by Jon Lovitz in “Happiness,” Andy killed himself after his final, disastrous date with Joy. Despite being dead for years, he returns as a vision or a ghost. The most lyrical sequence in the film has Joy wandering out of her sister’s home in the middle of the night, walking across town in her nightgown. She eventually comes to an all-night T.G.I. Friday’s style restaurant. The cheery greeter seems oblivious to Joy’s gloomy mood, one of the bigger laughs in the film. While waiting in the booth, Andy first appears to her. What starts as a touching heart-to-heart between the two, Joy wondering what death is like and Andy regretting his LaserDisc collection, soon degrades into a rougher argument. Andy reappears several times, attempting to force himself on Joy while she stays at Helen’s house, or putting the moves on her in a synagog. Later on, Joy has ghostly encounters with the other men she has lost. It’s all a not-too-subtle metaphor for past regrets and pain lingering in our lives, never to be resolved or closed. Replacing Lovitz is Paul Reubens, another primarily comedic actor taking on a dramatic part. Reubens is fine when being pathetic or sleazy but can’t summon the anger Lovitz delivered as Andy.

Easily the most despicable character in “Happiness” was Lara Flynn Boyle’s Helen, the most successful sister with the most rotten soul. Helen returns here, now played by Ally Sheedy. Helen hasn’t change much. She now lives in L.A. as a screenwriter with multiple Emmys, living in a McMansion with her own personal sushi chief. She remains endlessly pretentious, making obnoxious, grand statements about poetry and writing. Despite Joy’s evident distress, Helen continues to go on about her charmed life, acting as if she’s the one with the problems. She’s condescending to her sister and even bitches her out a few times. The character’s chapter concludes with her, once again, having enthusiastic sex with a boyfriend off-screen. In “Happiness,” the Helen character was a brutal critique of would-be artist type. Her appearance here is far more mean-spirited. Even Sheedy’s limitless charm is strained as the odious Helen.

But what has Trish been up to? She’s the sister the film spends the most time on. At first, the character seems better off. She’s living in Florida, has reconnected with her mother, and re-dedicated herself to her kids. She seems to have a genuine connection with Harvey. Yet the cracks begin to show quickly. She praises Harv for his “normalcy.” She has taught her youngest daughter to pop pills when she’s upset. (This causes the girl to develop an odd fear of baby carrots, another one of the film’s few laughs.) Most damningly, Trish has told her children that their father is dead. All the cast members need to reconcile with their past but Trish needs it the most. She hasn’t changed much over the years. When she meets with Joy for dinner, she continues the same old habit of passive-aggressively tearing down her sister’s accomplishments, before back-tracking on her behavior. But the years have been hard on Trish too. After a gymnastic round of old-people-sex with Harvey, she reveals that she doesn’t really care about her kids or her sisters. She leaves the film unchanged, having learned the least. Great character actress Allison Janney is the only improvement over “Happiness'” cast, a major upgrade over the vaporous Cynthia Stevenson.

If “Life During Wartime” can be said to have a central protagonist though, it’s young Timmy. Last seen as an obnoxious, screaming child, Timmy has now evolved into an observant thirteen year old. He discovers that his dad is still alive when kids at school tease him for having a convicted child molester for a dad. This reveal is what starts him on a quest towards forgiveness. He wonders out loud, bouncing his opinions off his mom and Harvey, if it’s possible to forgive someone for a great wrong. He explicitly compares pedophiles to the 9/11 terrorists. During the course of the film, he makes his own mistakes and becomes the one seeking forgiveness. After accidentally accusing Harvey of molestation, he seeks forgiveness from the robotic, possibly autistic Mark. As in “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” concludes that true forgiveness is difficult to achieve and wonders if it even matters. Dylan Riley Snyder is excellent in the part, showing a range of pathos and understanding beyond his year.

Perhaps the most interesting subplot in the film revolves around Bill, now free from prison and attempting to reconnect with his estranged family. Bill carries his mistakes on his shoulders. He admits that he struggles with his deviant desires every day, how it’s always a challenge. He has idyllic reoccurring dreams about seeing Timmy by a pool, the footage blurry and strange. At first, this appears to be a pedophilic daydream. Later, Timmy turns to reveal that he is holding a tulip, revealed earlier in the film as a symbol of normalcy. Another bit of too-on-the-nose symbolism is Bill’s habit of chewing on gumdrops. Gumdrops, the kind of candy a stereotypical child molester would lure children with. He pops them like pills, seemingly as a way to hold back his dark desires. Bill finds the empty home of his family in New Jersey, pausing at the pictures on the wall. He finds the room of his oldest son, Billy, who seems to have developed an interest in punk music and has headed to Oregon for college. Father and son reunite by the film’s end, having an intense conversation in the boy’s dorm room. Though Bill typically stumbles, disturbing his son, Billy makes it clear that he’s willing to rebuild a relationship with his dad. By then, it’s too late. Bill disappears like one of Joy’s ghosts. Dylan Baker in “Happiness” was more like a creepy sleazeball. Ciaran Hinds is sadder, older, more experienced and more burdened by his mistakes.

While “Life During Wartime” features some strong performances and a few stirring emotional moments, the film is seriously hampered by some of the worst dialogue of Solondz’ career. This is unusual, as the director’s scripts are usually very naturalistic and well-timed. The dialogue here is, instead, overly didactic. The film’s themes of forgiveness and acceptance are flatly laid out in dialogue and conversation. This is most blatant during a mostly unnecessary conversation Bill has with a woman in a singles’ bar. The character, who claims to be a horrible person and a monster, talks about whether or not she’s worthy of forgiveness. There are several moments like this, the film hitting the viewer over the head with its ideas and concepts. Solondz has never exactly been subtle but it’s especially egregious here.

The film also has an unusual, uncertain political subtext. Trish’s Jewish heritage is played up. One of the reasons she’s dating Harvey is because he supports Israel. Helen’s home is decorated with a large print of a Israeli tank, adorned with a big Star of David. The September 11th terrorist attacks are referenced repeatedly. Solondz not only seems to be discussing forgiveness on a personal level but on a geo-political level. Should America have forgive the terrorists for their actions? Or were their actions, as Harvey and Trish say, unforgivable? And should the world now forgive America for our rash actions following the attacks, sinking the country into an unending Middle Eastern conflict? These themes seemingly never build to anything and instead float around the main story, never solidifying into a coherent concept.

“Life During Wartime” moves beyond Solondz’ usual New Jersey locations. The film mostly takes place in Florida. In accordance with this setting, the film is painted in washed-out, tropical colors. One moment has strange blue and green lights reflecting on Billy’s face as he stands outside and talks. At first, it provides an interesting change of scenery for the filmmaker. By the end, the audience has grown tired of the sea-sick green tone. This is a shame since “Life During Wartime” is, otherwise, beautifully photographed.

The film’s ending is blunt and sudden, leaving several characters’ fates up to the viewer. (Unless Solondz makes a third film in another ten years, transforming “Happiness” into an unlikely trilogy.) While the director never looses sympathy for these troubled souls, the treatment of poor Joy borders on sadistic. As a sequel to “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” proves a mostly unnecessary trip. The film builds upon the original in some interesting ways but never justifies its existence. The tone is dour and there are few laughs, making the film a depressing slog. It’s a stumble for Solondz, whose films have all been varying degrees of excellent up to this point. [Grade: C+]

No comments: