Monday, August 15, 2011

Life During Wartime

The sequel to Todd Solondz' Happiness was released on DVD last month, just a few weeks before the scheduled premiere of his latest film, Dark Horse, at the Venice Film Festival. Life During Wartime is a worthwhile if not entirely satisfying update on the lives of the three sisters Helen, Joy, and Trish. All the principal characters from Happiness, as well as some from Solondz' earlier film Welcome to the Dollhouse, are played here by different actors.

Incidentally, I don't necessarily agree that the timeline of Solondz' universe is skewed, as some reviewers seem to think. Judging by the ages of the characters and the various pop culture references in the films, one could plausibly assume that Welcome to the Dollhouse takes place around 1990, Happiness in 2000, Storytelling around the same time, and Palindromes during a span between 2000 and 2006. Life During Wartime would most likely take place in 2008. Each film is then set roughly at the time of its release, with Dollhouse happening several years earlier and Happiness slightly later. None of which is very important, but I had fun with it while spending a weekend in Solondzville watching the newest chapter and revisiting the old ones.

While all of them are good, it was the underrated Palindromes that really made me sit up and take notice. The subjects of the satire in the earlier films are solidly bourgeois, making them easy targets for a hip audience. Palindromes' treatment of the abortion issue and the main character's rebellion against "liberal" values made it a somewhat riskier film. It was the work of an artist who clearly didn't give a damn whom he offended. And it was all the bolder considering that its concessions were sure to be lost on pro-life viewers, few of whom would have the sensibility for R-rated (or unrated) movies about pedophilia and rape. This is always the exciting thing about Solondz, though. He goes where the subject leads, without any apparent concern for who's following.

The newest work was originally called Forgiveness, which is a good statement of its theme--or half of it. The cliché "forgive and forget" is stated several times in the film, and for some of the characters at least, the second part of the admonition seems much easier to deal with. Trish, whose ex-husband Bill has been in prison for child rape, has left New Jersey and found what she considers a new life in Florida. She understandably refuses to dwell on the past, but by the same token she also denies its troubling effects on her family, a denial that skews her son Timmy's emotions and ends up hurting them both. For Helen, forgiveness is a weapon. She has picked up on the idea that it makes one a "better person" and interpreted this to mean that forgiving puts her in a position of superiority. She deploys her new-found tactic aggressively and, to her sister Joy, somewhat confusingly. For her part, Joy sees forgiveness as something to be passively received, an easy gift to which she is entitled. Her ghosts, however, see it differently. Bill's struggle with the idea may be the most complicated. When he gets out of prison and goes to visit his older son, now at college, he asks for forgiveness and is denied. He's obviously crushed, but he may also be reassured to know that Billy can't put himself in his father's shoes.

The choice of new actors for the roles, though sometimes dismissed as a gimmick, is indeed revelatory in many instances. As portrayed by Jane Adams in Happiness, Joy was a character whose flaws could almost be overlooked. Shirley Henderson makes a caricature of Joy's childlike qualities, and in doing so reveals their falseness. Trish, the priggish housewife who was paradoxically the most interesting and human character in Happiness, is the center of attention here. Allison Janney brings out a desperate vivacity behind the fear and neurosis. Ally Sheedy plays Helen, a character whose impressive drive and intensity are ever more focused on self-loathing. She's awesome to watch, if only for one brief sequence. Helen's treatment is actually rather perfunctory, which bears on the real shortcoming of the sequel. It seems unfinished, as if the storylines needed more attention. What's there is great, but there's not enough of it.

Perhaps the most problematic re-casting is that of Michael Kenneth Williams as Allen, the role played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the first film. As one critic put it, "[T]here's no way that a chunky, blond white guy and a dark-skinned black man with an eight-inch scar down the middle of his face could've had the same life experience growing up in America." Considering similar issues with other roles, the reviewer concludes, "These are just not the same people."

Is this true? In a strictly literal sense, it is. Probably no two people of different colors have exactly the same experience growing up in America. But does this mean that no chunky, blond white guys are ever involved in street crime? Or that no muscular black men ever lead lives of pathetic, self-loathing solitude? I confess that I found the new Allen difficult to accept, probably because of assumptions like these which I didn't even know I had. But they are interesting assumptions, and deserving of the questioning to which Solondz subjects them. Janney's Trish is also problematic, but here again the difference seems designed to test our biases. Is it possible that a stuck-up, judgmental suburban housewife could have a real lust for life and even, perhaps, some sense of irony underneath it all? Surely not...yet Solondz asks us to rethink.

Despite a certain thinness to the narrative, Life During Wartime again shows Solondz doing what he does best, as he would say, challenging preconceptions instead of flattering them. Possibly the trick casting started as an adaptation to necessity, but if it was an accident it has proved to be a happy one. These characters were always full of complexity and contradiction, and the sequel only explores a bit more of what was already there. There's a lot of potential in Solondz' strategy of freeing his characters from the limitations of particular actors. He took full advantage of it in Palindromes. Let's hope he does so again.

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