A fearless tragicomedy about hope, dread, longing, and forgiveness, Life During Wartime (2010) is Todd Solondz’s boldest and most haunting movie to date, carrying his exploration of Middle American malaise into new territory. As before, he probes the dreams, dissatisfactions, and delusions of outsiders—the nerds, freaks, pariahs, and just generally discontented people ignored by society—with sympathy and humor. What makes this picture a milestone, however, is the intensity of his compassion for the disgruntled suburbanites he depicts. Empathy has always been important for him, but here it pervades every aspect of the story, enriching its humanity and deepening its mordant wit.
Life During Wartime is a network narrative, interweaving multiple plotlines, most about characters who first appeared in Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness, now played by different actors. Three of them are sisters. Trish (Allison Janney), divorced from convicted child rapist Bill Maplewood (Ciarán Hinds), is raising her three children—only the oldest, Billy, knows about the father’s crimes—and dating middle-aged Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), whose main attractions are that he’s ordinary, Jewish, and available. Helen (Ally Sheedy) is a best-selling author turned screenwriter who can’t shake her awareness of what a fraud and phony she’s become. The woefully misnamed Joy (Shirley Henderson) has recently married Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), a severely conflicted man with dark sexual urges. Their mother, Mona (Renée Taylor), is also in the picture, transplanted from New Jersey to Florida, and no less miserable in her semitropical surroundings than she was up north.
The sisters are the beating heart of Life During Wartime, but male characters play crucial roles too. One is Trish’s boy Timmy, who learns some of the truth about his father while studying for his bar mitzvah and becomes fearful of what his impending manhood may bring. Another is Bill, the pedophile, who finishes his prison term at the beginning of the film. Judging by appearances, the penitentiary hasn’t made him very penitent. He’s grim and menacing as he skulks around the edges of the story, traveling to Florida and sneaking into Trish’s house to learn the whereabouts of Billy, who’s away at college.
The blend of yearning and frustration that these characters embody has been a constant in Solondz’s cinema since his 1995 breakout feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which chronicles the life and times of Dawn Wiener, a junior high student so desperate to connect that when a scruffy classmate threatens to rape her after school, she shows up for the appointment right on time. Happiness followed, winning the international critics prize at Cannes but breaking so many taboos—pedophilia, child rape, preteen masturbation—that its distributor dumped it, leaving two of the producers to release it, which they did, with considerable success. Next came the two-part Storytelling (2001), portraying stark, interracial sex (censored for the sake of an R rating) and class antipathy so powerful that an entire bourgeois family perishes as a result of it.
In these and his subsequent pictures, Solondz peers into dark corners of American culture that few other filmmakers have dared to explore, cultivating a unique artistic personality—at once incisive, ironic, sensitive, and self-assured—through unpredictable stories that blend social satire, psychological nuance, and sheer entertainment. His freewheeling cinematic style is equally distinctive, interweaving the inner and outer lives of his characters in scenes made fresh and surprising by emotionally revealing camera work, wry touches of color and decor, and music ranging from pop to opera. In short, Solondz has emerged as American film’s lyric poet of the rejected, the dejected, and the clueless, and of the lackluster Generica in which they live.
Palindromes (2004), recounting the adventures of Dawn Wiener’s cousin, Aviva, as she runs away from home and meets an array of people as alienated as she is, was Solondz’s first venture into casting more than one actor as a single individual. There, he uses multiple actors to play Aviva at different stages of her life. In Life During Wartime, he varies the device: each character is portrayed by a single actor, but for the characters who also appeared in Happiness, a decade earlier, a different performer now has the part. The philosophical point remains the same, however—that in different situations and surroundings and at different stages of our lives we become different people, changed for better or worse by our experiences. Solondz uses the technique extraordinarily well in both films to find new shades of mood, color, and meaning in his characters.
In Life During Wartime, blunt-featured, intimidating Hinds replaces vulnerable-looking Dylan Baker as Bill, the psychotherapist turned child rapist, after prison. Instead of Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the severely conflicted, compulsive Allen, we now have Williams, an African American actor with a conspicuously scarred face, implicitly suggesting that people with incongruous sexual identities are an underclass that society would rather look away from than try to understand. And former Pee-wee’s Playhouse star Paul Reubens replaces Jon Lovitz as Andy, Joy’s unhappy ex—a marvelous switch, prompted by Solondz’s insight that Reubens’s scandal-besmirched history would intensify the audience’s sympathy for Andy, and by the filmmaker’s idea that Andy is the kind of guy who would have a Pee-wee doll at home. Movie by movie, Solondz is building a Balzac-like world of friends, foes, and families that can recur and evolve from one story to another. Yet he rightly says that each film stands completely on its own.
While not every character in Life During Wartime is a fringe dweller or borderline personality, a good number of them are, and this presents a challenge for the filmmaker, since the deepest thoughts of recluses, perverts, imminent suicides, and the like must ultimately be beyond our ken. Solondz solves this problem mainly through the remarkable dialogue he writes, allowing nearly all of his characters to speak with startling freedom and say exactly what’s on their minds and in their hearts. For good examples, listen to the encounters Bill has after leaving prison. One takes place in a bar, where he meets a woman named Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling), who’s just as lonely, hardened, and impervious to human warmth as he is. Calling herself a “monster,” she crawls into his hotel room bed for cold, calisthenic sex, then lets him walk away (with the cash from her purse) as if they’d never met—and we feel we’ve glimpsed a kind of self-inflicted sorrow we hardly knew existed until now. A later encounter is completely different in kind yet strangely similar in terms of Bill’s behavior. In the dorm room of his son, who didn’t know he was out of jail, Bill peppers Billy with questions meant not to reawaken the young man’s love but to soothe his own tormented soul; then he abruptly leaves, having learned that Billy is a smart and successful student whose sexuality is as ordinary as they come. The pair’s slowly evolving responses to each other are mercurial and multifaceted, and following his custom, Solondz offers no neat resolution to their situation. Like other encounters in the film, from Trish’s first date with Harvey to Joy’s bittersweet visits with her sisters, this one offers nuanced moments that linger in the mind long after the story ends.
Such scenes explore not only the psychology of the characters but the nature of communication between people, which can be most misleading when it’s working hardest to be practical and direct—as when Trish tries to answer Timmy’s questions about pedophilia and produces more confusion, and more unhappy consequences, than she could imagine. Solondz has a remarkable gift for creating such moments. His characters’ struggles to find some sort of rapport are mirrored by his own attempt to enter their worlds and figure out what makes them tick.
Solondz is an ethical thinker with a grounding in traditional Jewish morality that’s both sincere and skeptical. Life During Wartime briefly had the working title Forgiveness, and Timmy is preparing a talk on that subject for his bar mitzvah when he’s blindsided by knowledge about his pedophile father, who may be impossible to forgive; could it be, as another character says, that forgiveness isn’t achievable in human affairs until “an eye for an eye” has run its course? “As a onetime yeshiva student,” critic J. Hoberman wrote in his Village Voice review, “the filmmaker was taught that while it is incumbent upon a pious Jew to atone, only the Creator of the Universe can truly forgive.” And what if remorse is expressed by the blameworthy but then rejected by the recipient—a parent, a child, society, or even God? Solondz doesn’t pretend to have answers to such conundrums, but raising them is itself a courageous, creative act.
Pedophilia figures in almost all of Solondz’s films. Yet it’s not a topic that fascinates him in itself. Rather, he finds it a powerful metaphor for whatever is most despised and demonized by contemporary culture; he could be right when he says that most Americans would choose dinner with Osama bin Laden over dinner with a child molester. Solondz’s willingness to take on this taboo topic is a measure of his commitment to explore not only marginalized individuals but also the unexamined presumptions and prejudices of society at large. These ethical considerations gain extra force from the residue of September 11, 2001, that hangs over Life During Wartime, partly motivating its title and making this Solondz’s most pointedly political movie. Although the terrorist attacks are hardly mentioned, Solondz calls this a post-traumatic stress disorder film.
Of course, 9/11 isn’t what made Helen so hypocritical, or Harvey so wishy-washy, or Jacqueline so bitter, or Mark so solipsistic; and America was obsessed with child abuse, uncaring toward its elderly, and paranoid about sexuality long before the so-called war on terror began. But one can’t help seeing the fall of the Twin Towers not just as defining the historical moment in which the characters are living but also as a world-scale projection of the smaller defeats that overtake them as they wage other kinds of wars within themselves. The very phrase “war on terror” captures the panicky swirl of embattled selves, interpersonal grievances, and social bewilderment that afflicts so many of these people. Life during wartime has become normal life in our fallen world, and for Solondz, the personal and the political are two sides of a tarnished coin, separate and inseparable at once. This is why 9/11 haunts the story like the unbidden ghosts that haunt some of the characters, and it’s also why the film has a glimmering optimism beneath its melancholy surface. As catastrophic as 9/11 was, Solondz doesn’t regard it in entirely tragic terms: he has spoken of how Americans came together in kindness after the attacks, and most of his characters also find fleeting moments of understanding and companionship, no matter how bleak their circumstances otherwise remain. Life During Wartime is often fierce and mournful, but it has gentle, compassionate overtones that play out in remarkably moving ways.
And it is also very funny. Solondz’s earlier films revolve around New Jersey, where he grew up, but here, most of the action has migrated to Florida, a land of condos and shopping malls painted in pink and turquoise—Solondz calls these toothpaste colors—exquisitely photographed by Ed Lachman with the RED digital camera system. Comedy arises often as people strive to feel alive in this half-dead, make-believe environment, and as misguided and mistaken as they regularly are, there are times when you simply have to laugh and cheer them on. Unlike the funny business in most mainstream movies, however, Solondz’s razor-sharp humor isn’t meant as an escape hatch from reality; the funniest moments in his films can be the keenest ones as well.
In his classic book Laughter, philosopher Henri Bergson writes that the highest forms of the comic appeal to “intelligence, pure and simple,” inducing a “momentary anesthesia of the heart” that short-circuits sentimentality so we can think and feel more clearly about the complexities and absurdities of life. No contemporary filmmaker appeals to our intelligence more truthfully and consistently than Todd Solondz, and no film of his is as ambitious, clear-sighted, and optimistic in depicting life in a lost America as Life During Wartime.
David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, chief book critic at Film Quarterly, and an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.