DVD Review - Life During Wartime
|Dylan Riley Snyder|
in "Life During Wartime"
In March 2011, the Criterion Collection invited email questions to filmmaker Todd Solondz. The special features of the disc contain the 44-minute audio recording of Solondz answering 26 of those questions. He gives a lot of interesting and revealing responses, but one with which I take issue is his answer to question # 5.
Solondz admits that Life During Wartime is a sequel to his 1998 film Happiness. In question # 5 though, he says no one needs to see Happiness in order to view Life During Wartime. I respectfully have to disagree. While the film is still compelling as a stand-alone, the appreciation of the characters, their nuances and variations, as well as Solondz's style, increase a thousand-fold if you see Happiness first. It makes the experience more enjoyable and more hilarious.
I refer to Life During Wartime as a film, but, the DVD includes an interview with cinematographer Ed Lachman who is a veteran with film, actual celluloid. Lachman talks about how Solondz's latest was shot using the RED camera, which is a digital-only format. Lachman discusses his first-time with the RED, his European influences, and the poetic realism he strived to attain in this movie.
There is a lot of poetry to Solondz's work. There's also a lot of music. Mostly all of Solondz's films are titled after songs often composed and performed by a character within the story. "Life During Wartime" is the name of the song sung by Joy, the first woman to appear in this movie. Solondz created the song with Marc Shaiman, one of the most successful film, TV and Broadway composers who is best known for Hairspray. Freak-folk artist Devendra Banhart and alt-rock musician Beck sing a beautiful version of "Life During Wartime" in the end credits.
Scottish actress Shirley Henderson plays Joy. Joy experiences a real sense of déjà vu at the opening when her husband Allen takes her out to eat and gives her a very familiar present. Michael Kenneth Williams plays Allen as a timid individual, struggling with inner demons.
On the DVD's special features, Williams talks about how he knew nothing of Solondz's work. Solondz admits to knowing nothing of Williams' infamous character on HBO's The Wire, but both speak of the power the two felt working with one another. All the actors in the special features mention the power of Solondz and how meticulous and controlling he is.
This is perhaps in stark contrast to how this movie feels. This movie and the characters in it don't feel like the products of a controlled auteur. The characters and plot feel conversely as free-form. Continuing with Lachman's analogy, if this movie were like poetry, it would at most times be free verse, as characters literally float in and out.
The story picks up 10 years after the end of Happiness. After some trouble with Allen, Joy visits her sister, Trish, in Florida. Trish, played by Allison Janney (The West Wing) is a divorced woman with three kids, Billy in college, Timmy who's 12 and Chloe who's 7. Trish has recently met and fallen in love with a new man named Harvey Wiener, played by Oscar-nominee Michael Lerner (Barton Fink).
Harvey Wiener has a son named Mark Wiener. For fans of Solondz, this name should sound familiar. Mark Wiener was a major character from Solondz's award-winning 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse, the movie that put Solondz on the map.
Joy lastly visits her sister, Helen, played by Ally Sheedy. Helen is an author whose stopped writing books and is now penning screenplays for and in Hollywood. Helen is still as self-absorbed and as egotistical as ever. Joy seeks advice from Helen about her marriage. All the while, the ghost of Joy's ex-boyfriend, Andy, played by Paul Reubens, haunts her.
But, Joy isn't the only one who is haunted. For those who saw Happiness, you know that that film was an excellent examination of the relationships between several women, including the three sisters, the relationships they had as well as the relationships they wanted. A storyline that was interwoven insidiously yet brilliantly was that of Trish's husband being revealed to be a pedophile.
That storyline continues here and isn't just part of the fabric. It dominates the story. Trish's husband was Bill Maplewood, played here by Ciaran Hinds. At the beginning of this movie, Bill is released from prison, but no one in his family at first realizes it. Bill's youngest son, Timmy, didn't even know his father was alive. Timmy, played by Dylan Riley Snyder, is a freckle-faced redhead with a bowl haircut who's prepping a speech for his bar mitzvah.
In his speech, Timmy asks questions like what it means to be a man. Inherently, he's asking what it means to be a human, and arguably a big part of humanity is compassion, understanding of others as well as forgiveness. It becomes obvious that forgiveness is the theme in Solondz's work here. Timmy, in fact, learns about the sins of his father and doesn't just ask but challenges others to forgive him.
On the wall of Trish's son, Billy, played by Chris Marquette, there's a film poster of I'm Not There (2007). From that fact, it's clear that this movie was written if not certainly filmed during the presidency of George W. Bush. With the exception of Palindromes (2004), which took on abortion, Solondz's films haven't been political in as much as they've been satires on suburban life.
But, Solondz's commentary on the Bush administration are undeniable here. At one point, Timmy references a friend whose name is Ari Fleischer. Ari Fleischer was Bush's press secretary during his first term. Solondz makes implications to the war on terror but never in any overt ways condemning any actions taken by anyone. The American conservative opinion is expressed whereas any leftist, progressive or liberal point-of-view, which might have come from someone like Joy, is literally hushed as Joy's soft-spoken and deadpan deliveries are so droll as not to be counterpoint but merely the gumdrops in this confectionery of a movie.
While Solondz uses the same opening credit titles as Happiness and even though he embraces a production design that almost matches the art direction of his 1998 black comedy, the use of colors and the use of Puerto Rico, as a stand-in for Florida, do create a confectionery look to this movie that Happiness lacked. The way that Timmy's freckles pop out in every scene would seem to suggest that. The way that Solondz handles dreams here is also confectionary. In Happiness, Solondz was more literal, quick and distinct, but Life During Wartime has dreams that are hazy, slow-moving, repetitious and sweet in a teasing way.
I would dare say that Life During Wartime isn't as laugh-out-loud funny as Happiness. Yet, Solondz had the power of shock value then. That film was like he literally slammed two planes into a building and we watched as that building crumbled. With this film, it's like Solondz is wading through aftermath, trying to rebuild what was once solid. This movie is still hilarious, just not necessarily in the same way. Solondz still has at times great one-liners and still succeeds in these sort of warped "Leave It To Beaver" moments where he addresses taboos, but those taboos aren't punches to the gut as they are kicks to the shins.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.