Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review - Life During Wartime

It has been over a decade since Todd Solondz directed Happiness, and in those intervening years his characters have changed – literally. In his belated sequel Life During Wartime, Solondz has brought back all of those figures who played key roles in his acclaimed earlier film, but every part is now being played by a different actor. So, for Philip Seymour Hoffman's lonely sex-pest Allen we now have Michael K Williams, the neurotic Joy is now played by Shirley Henderson rather than Jane Adams, and paedophile Bill, who was originally portrayed in a magnificent performance by Dylan Baker, now appears in the guise of Ciarán Hinds. As in Palindromes, Solondz's adventurous and colour-blind casting choices initially feel like a gimmick, but perhaps they also allow him to suggest that while time may change people externally over the years, the psychological and emotional problems that plague our past are not so easy to leave behind.

Solondz draws a clear link between Happiness and Life During Wartime with an opening scene explicitly mirroring the bad date that opened the earlier film, but for the most part Solondz establishes a different, more sombre tone in his latest effort. Happiness delighted in undermining its portrayal of American suburbia with sexual perversions, death and the blackest of black humour, but he seems less inclined towards such shocking tactics now. The new approach could be summed up by Hinds' haunted and haunting performance as Bill, who has been released from jail and who now stalks through the movie like a ghost. The level of empathy and mystery that Solondz achieves in this character's narrative is something new from the director, and Hinds brings extraordinary gravity to the part of a man who has paid the price for his past misdeeds, and who is seeking a second chance with his now-adult son, even if he himself doesn't believe he deserves one. Hinds also shares one magnificent scene with Charlotte Rampling, playing a lonely woman he meets in a bar one night. "Are you married?" he asks her. "Married, alone, it's the same thing" she dryly responds. "No" Hinds states, "Alone is alone."

Even if he only appears in a couple of scenes, the character of Bill is central to Life During Wartime, as Solondz's key theme here is the possibility of forgiveness. Trish (Allison Janney), Bill's ex-wife, is trying to start a new relationship but is troubled by the questions posed by her youngest son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) when he discovers the truth about his father, whom Trish had always told him was dead. All of the characters in Life During Wartime are burdened by the weight of the past, and the film is all about the challenges they face in coming to terms with what went before. Can they forgive those that mistreated them? Can they cut their ties with the past? In one case, even death cannot break the bond, with Joy being haunted by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens, replacing Jon Lovitz) who died in the first film.

Solondz's biggest flaw is that he often lets his screenplays collapse into a series of conversations around the main theme, and as funny as his writing often is, it can also feel forced and didactic. Mitigating that issue, however, is the superior craftsmanship on display here – with Ed Lachman's cinematography ensuring this is, by some distance, the most visually appealing film Solondz has made – and the director's ever-excellent work with his actors. Allison Janney and Michael Lerner are particularly strong in their scenes together, while Paul Reubens shines in his small role. Life During Wartime is flawed, and Solondz still can't resist going for cheap shots occasionally, but it is still the most coherent and accomplished film he has made since...well...Happiness. Perhaps it's these characters that bring out the best in the director. He clearly has an affinity for them that hasn't been present in any of his other work, but whether Solondz can find similar success away from this milieu remains to be seen.