Friday, August 27, 2010

Life During Wartime: More (Self) Loathing From Todd Solondz

Life During Wartime, the latest film from Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998))  is just more of the same, another putative drama full of caricatured human beings, who generally loath themselves and exist merely to reflect in turn the self loathing of the director. The deep humanity of a Mike Leigh (All or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky) is not for Solondz; he’d rather take facile shots at American society, kill off his own characters (as he did with Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener at the outset of the wretched Palindromes (2004)), and offer up a facsimile of feeling and insightful commentary. Life During Wartime, though, is somewhat more competent than his norm, which considering the otherwise deep flaws of the movie, isn’t reason enough to go see this film.

In a way, the movie is a sequel to Happiness, with that film's same characters, but played by different actors - a pretentious conceit, coming from the same pointless place as Solondz's casting of various actors, of both genders, varying ages and colours, to incarnate the female lead in Palindromes. While pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has been imprisoned because of his deviants acts, his ex–wife Trish (Allison Janney) prepares to marry again, to Harvey (Michael Lerner), an amiable, disheveled nice guy who wants very much to be a good father to Trish’s two sons. Meanwhile, Trish’s sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) has problems of her own, with a vicious husband Allen (Michael K. Williams) and her own screwed up sense of self. There’s also a third sister in the picture, Helen (Ally Sheedy), a brittle Hollywood screenwriter who has a problematic relationship with her siblings, not least because she’s strongly anti–Zionist.

Did I mention that the New Jersey-bred family at the center of Life During Wartime, which is set in Miami, is Jewish? I should note that point, because alongside Woody Allen and the Coen brothers but in a much more pronounced and consistently offensive fashion, Solondz, who is Jewish, has a tendency to stereotype and exaggerate his Jewish protagonists, overemphasizing their neuroses and pathetic bents to such an extent that they cease to be people one can relate to, much less empathize with. Lerner has often played overdone characters, in such films as the Coen brothers Barton Fink and A Serious Man, with annoyingly outsized performances to match, but Solondz renders the rest of the cast in a similarly ugly, grotesque fashion. Janney (The West Wing, Juno) in particular, has never looked so unattractive on screen or played such a vapid character. And RenĂ©e Taylor as the family matriarch is as shrill as can be. I won’t even describe what Solondz does to Charlotte Rampling, who appears in one embarrassing scene as a broken-down drunk.

As for the politics of the film –- the title refers to the ongoing U.S. presence on Afghanistan/Iraq (the movie was released on the festival circuit in 2009) –- it's superficial and obvious. The war at home matches the war(s) abroad; wow, that's deep! (The movie's title likely also references the great Talking Heads song of the same name but I’d hate to link that work of art with this worthless film.) Sonlondz also throws in a few cheap shots at Israel –- still a relatively new phenomenon in films though, alas, not in life –- notably in a scene when Helen is framed by a huge poster of a Palestinian kid facing down an Israeli tank. We get it, Todd; the Israelis are the bad guys here! Just don’t bother with any nuance or explanatory background on the conflict. Oh, and throw in a few lines of dialogue that showcase how foolish and uninformed the film’s Jews are for supporting Israel in the first place. Though most American Jews vote Democrat, Solondz is careful to point out that Harvey, and by extension Trish, supported George W. Bush because he’s pro–Israel, and we already know, from Hollywood movies, how voting for Bush is never a good thing. (At least, Solondz doesn't descend to the lower, amoral depths of the vile Storytelling (2001), wherein his Jewish protagonist gassed his own family.)

It quickly becomes clear, again, that Solondz is not the slightest bit interested in fashioning a movie with any depth or shadings. Yet, he shows a faint glimmer of being able to do, in one touching scene where Bill (who is otherwise an irritatingly opaque persona), freed from prison, visits his son in college. Their attempt to connect emotionally and meet each other in a place of mutual understanding is very well done and memorable. Add the fact that this movie, more so than any of Solondz’s others, actually feels like the work of a genuine director and one can be forgiven for getting one’s hopes up and contemplating a time when he might just make a layered, thoughtful movie. However, since most of Life During Wartime conspicuously lacks those very same qualities, that’s only wishful thinking at best.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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