Filmmaker Todd Solondz is known for films that, for some, seem to be made for the sole impulse of irritating the easily or maybe even not-so-easily offended. Films such as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Palindromes challenge notions of empathy, asking viewers to acknowledge the common human bonds that everyday, theoretically respectable people share with pedophiles, rapists, and killers. Everything about a typical Solondz film appears to be purposefully off-putting: the subject matter, the blunt dialogue, the continued indulgence of reductive stereotypes, as well as the general banality of the image itself, which is usually flat, functional, and apparently shot through a filter of piss-stained cloth.
With the exception of his vile Storytelling, which seemed to have been made to purposefully validate all the accusations his detractors threw his way, Solondz's film are usually partially cathartic and emotionally wrenching and partially ham-handed and ridiculous, sometimes at the same time. Happiness, his best film until last year, was one of the most daring American films of the 1990s, as well as one of the most indulgent and hamstrung by its creator's inability to grant his characters a slight whiff of the unqualified titular state. I've never found Solondz films to be as mean-spirited as many have (once again excluding Storytelling), but the cynicism and smart-assery are grating after a while—the result of a talented prankster who hasn't quite fully blossomed or who hasn't quite distanced himself enough from the personal pain that probably fuels his work.
Life During Wartime, a "quasi-sequel," as Solondz himself terms it, to Happiness, is a major surprise, as the cynicism of the earlier films has been replaced with a disconcertingly sincere despair. The ironic distance that has (understandably, to a point) chafed certain critics has been pared away, and so have most of the shock tactics and the kinds of calculatedly bizarre digressions that are meant to feed a director's reputation as an avant-garde bad boy.
The film opens with an exchange between two characters that deliberately mirrors the opening of Happiness. Joy, played by Jane Adams in Happiness and now by Shirley Henderson, is having dinner with her husband Allen, once played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and now embodied by the haunting Michael Kenneth Williams. In the dinner that opened Happiness, Joy dumped a pasty, depressed loser named Andy, who retaliated through tears with a brutal dismissal she's never forgotten. The new dinner ends in a similar humiliation that sends Joy spiraling into a crisis of self-loathing and confusion, prompting her to leave Allen in an attempt to join the rest of her family, who has relocated from New Jersey to Florida.
Joy's crisis, similar to the disappointments her prior incarnation weathered in Happiness, is the through line Solondz employs to revisit many of that film's prominent characters. Joy's sister Trish, once embodied by a rather shrill Cynthia Stevenson, is now portrayed by Allison Janney with a desperate blooming sexuality that elevates a stereotype into something vaguely human. Trish's ex-husband Bill, the controversial pedophile played (superbly) by Dylan Baker in the first film, is now a recently released ex-con played by the hulking, magnificently ghostly Ciarán Hinds. Andy, once Jon Lovitz, is now a literal ghost who still clings to the hope that he can have Joy (the names aren't so subtle), occasionally popping in on her, usually when she's at her lowest emotional ebb.
This Andy is a mark of Solondz's newfound generosity as a filmmaker. Now played by Paul Reubens, the character transcends the potentially tasteless casting stunt to embody the hurt and sense of futility that has always fueled Solondz's films. Reubens, obviously known for his considerably more antic Pee-Wee Herman, drains his body of the comic vitality for which he's known, while retaining a sense of emotional urgency that's continually surprising. Reubens's performance is disciplined and deceptively simple; his Andy a spiritual vapor that acts as a parallel to Hinds's Bill, a man also destroyed and left adrift by inexplicable appetites.
Working with the gifted cinematographer Ed Lachman, Solondz has finally made a film that's legitimately beautiful—a picture of rich, dark, occasionally surreal blues and mahogany hues that reveal the heightened, dream-like misery of characters struggling to regain the illusory sense of fragile belonging they lost over the course of Happiness. There's a constant, inexplicable tension in this film; it seems to be continually teeter-tottering between a dream and a nightmare. Several vignettes (the story is structured as a series of theatrical, nearly self-contained dialogues) could be fantasy, or the entire thing could be one long societal death rattle. The film is steeped in a polished atmosphere of decaying rot where characters either plead for forgiveness or damn themselves to a terminal lonely malaise they assume they've earned.
Life During Wartime is hard to shake because Solondz has arrived at a state of purity—shedding most of his shallow distractions to reveal the desperation and, yes, tenderness underneath, but there are still a few off spots. The "life during war" theme, adequately represented by the characters' moral confusion, is occasionally too explicitly stated with strained half-jokes that fall flat (such as one character proclaiming that they will "stay the course"), reflecting a staunch literal-mindedness that betrays the mystery of the film's strongest sections. And a few of the actors, despite the overall excellence of the ensemble, are unable to transcend the unimaginative reliance on stereotype that Solondz needs to out-grow: Michael Lerner, a talented actor, is stuck in the role of "Middle-Aged Jew," while Ally Sheedy is similarly squandered in another of the filmmaker's swipes at rich, vain bitches. But these are really quibbles, as Life During Wartime is clearly a breakthrough for Solondz, a moving tragicomedy that ranks as one of the best American films of last year.
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Life During Wartime gets a characteristically terrific transfer from Criterion. The rich, spectral compositions on this DVD are sharper and more detailed than some Blu-rays, which is strikingly evident in a passage that has Joy walking outside under a moon-lit sky, eventually crossing a parking lot to an obnoxious chain restaurant. Dark pictures can sometimes yield problematic transfers, but the shades of darkness—the intentionally garish reds, the inky blacks—are detailed and entirely discernable from one another. The 5.1 surround sound is impressively enveloping, particularly in capturing the ambient sounds of Bill's nearly wordless opening scenes, but this is mostly a film of compelling silences.
"Ask Todd" is a compilation of questions that readers sent in to the director in preparation for this DVD last year. While the results will initially be familiar to anyone who ever sat in on a filmmaker discussion following a screening (including the usual boring, besides-the-point inquiries that essentially boil down to "where do you get your ideas?"), the questions eventually become admirably eccentric, allowing Solondz to reveal stories and personal quirks that add up to an instructive portrait of his working methods, including how he internalizes audiences' responses to his work. (One reader even asks about Bill's obsession with gumdrops, a memorable detail that was a happy accident.)
"Making Life During Wartime" follows the basic format of the ass-kissing cast-and-crew talking-heads piece, except that these cast interviews, which include virtually every major performer in the film, are occasionally interesting and revealing. Shirley Henderson and Allison Janney discuss Solonz's attention to the looks of the characters (he spent hours personally figuring Henderson's hair, which seems to be continually threatening to swallow her head throughout the film), while Michael Kenneth Williams admits that he and Solondz had no idea who one another were until an audition. Interspersed among these testimonials is footage of the actual shooting of the film, which would seem to confirm Solondz's reputedly obsessive hands-on technique (he stands right over actors as they perform, will tolerate no ad-libbing, and so on).
The interviews and selected-scene commentary with cinematographer Ed Lachman are easily the most interesting features, as they afford a craftsman who isn't the director the unusual opportunity to discuss his work on the film, thus quietly refuting the tiresome "director as God" ideology that dominates most film criticism. Lachman is refreshingly grounded and specific, recounting the sentiments that inspired specific shots, as well as direct, at one point admitting that he was hesitant to work with Solondz because of what he saw as the shabby visual texture that characterized the director's prior films.
Finally, there's a terrific appreciation of Solondz and Life During Wartime by David Sterritt that serves as the liner notes, as well as the film's trailer. All said, this is a genuinely entertaining collection of extras that actually gives one some idea of the work and thought that went into the picture at hand.
A wonderful, must-own transfer by the Criterion Collection of one of last year's best films.