Life During Wartime

From Aug ’10 Spotlight: Todd Solondz’ new film Life During Wartime opens August 6 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. Solondz is an “edgy” filmmaker, and I found his first three films rewarding, but this time my reaction is more mixed. He definitely gives us food for thought, but if you go, expect to see negative stereotypes of Jewish women and hostile references to the role Israel plays in contemporary Jewish-American consciousness.  Click HERE for FF2 haiku.

Tzivi Rants On…

 Todd Solondz is the kind of filmmaker who likes to “push buttons,” & in the past I’ve found it intellectually challenging to let him push some of mine, so why I am so resistant this time?

Life During Wartime is a sequel (kinda sorta) to his 1998 film Happiness.  The main character in Happiness is a psychotherapist named “William Maplewood” who appears to have it all: beautiful wife, successful career, loving children, comfortable home.  But Bill is harboring a horrible secret, & one night, when son #1 (the pubescent “Billy”) brings a friend home for dinner, Bill succumbs to his lust.  He drugs everyone & once they’re all asleep, Bill rapes the boy.

Bill’s torment is counterpointed by family scenes in which his wife “Trish,” convinced she does have it all, lords it over her two younger sisters: “Helen” (a beautiful but brittle writer) & “Joy” (a sweet-faced waif).  And every once in a while Solondz heads south (from suburban New Jersey to Boca Raton, Florida), where Trish’s parents wait for death in a retirement community that only appears idyllic from the outside. 

Bill also has office scenes in which he endures the monotonous misery of a deeply-disturbed patient named “Allen,” who just happens to live in Helen’s high rise.  At the very end of Happiness, after the police have carted Bill away, the sisters decamp to Boca where Helen offers to arrange a date for Joy & Allen.  Of course, Helen doesn’t really know very much about Allen, all she really knows is that she, Helen, has much better options, so why not throw her lovelorn baby sister a bone?

Rich & I really liked Happiness, even though we both found the pile on of grotesques a bit overstuffed (especially in Helen’s high rise).   Dylan Baker’s powerful performance as Bill Maplewood anchored the film, and the sisters stories swirling around him worked because they balanced out his lonely interior monologues.  In Life During Wartime, set ten years later, all these characters are back, but played by an entirely new crew of actors.  Ciaran Hinds has replaced Dylan Baker as Bill Maplewood; Allison Janney has replaced Cynthia Stevenson as Trish; Ally Sheedy has replaced Lara Flynn Boyle as Helen; Shirley Henderson has replaced Jane Adams as Joy; and Michael Kenneth Williams has replaced Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Allen.  (Minor characters are also played by new actors, and of course Bill & Tish have a whole new set of kids.)  Sure, it’s kind of a gimmick, but after all the casting high-jinx in Palindromes, so what?

Wartime opens just as Bill Maplewood is about to be released from prison.  Meanwhile, down in Boca, his second son “Timmy” is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.  Say what???  Nowhere in Happiness was anyone identified as Jewish, but now, with Boca Raton played by Puerto Rico & an incredibly goyishe cast, Solondz starts pouring on the stereotypes, and building a soundtrack that mixes an insipid orchestral version of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” (from Fiddler on the Roof) with “Avinu Malkeinu” (from the Yom Kippur liturgy).  And just to rub it in, Helen’s fancy new Hollywood haven (filled with the Emmy statues she’s earned for her TV screenplays), has a huge photo, echoing Tiananmen Square, of an Israeli tank about to run down a kid in Intifada-garb. 

There’s a really good film in here about forgiveness & redemption, & had Solondz focused on Bill’s relationship with his two sons, he might have had me at hello.  But what was merely annoying in Happiness (the “over-stuffed” parts) has become truly offensive in Wartime.  Full disclosure: I too was born in Newark, NJ & I too graduated from Livingston High School, so I know this turf just as well as Solondz does.  Sure, some mockery is well-earned, but this time Solondz was seduced by “low hanging fruit,” & simply didn’t work hard enough to push anyone’s buttons.  Me, I just left the screening room shaking my head & muttering: Oy!

Photo of Ciaran Hinds courtesy of IFC FIlms.

Click HERE for FF2 haiku for Happiness

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