Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: NYFF09 Movie Review: Life During Wartime

Saturday, October 10, 2009

NYFF09 Movie Review: Life During Wartime

by Tony Dayoub

Director Todd Solondz revisits the characters of his most (in)famous movie, Happiness (1998), in the sort-of sequel, Life During Wartime. In Happiness, the gag was how Solondz could mask the sickening acts perpetrated by a child molester/psychologist and an obscene caller—and how those acts affected their friends and family—with a defiant Leave it to Beaver vibe that made one's skin crawl even more. Life During Wartime is decidedly less repulsive, exploring the impact the events of the first film had on those characters more than a decade later, and whether forgiveness or redemption are even possible given the heinousness of such acts.

The movie begins with a scene that is virtually identical to the first scene in Happiness. Both scenes feature Joy (Jane Adams in the first one, now Shirley Henderson), a homely woman, breaking off a romance with a significant other who is overwhelmed with tears. In this film, that is Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), a pervert who Joy married when she thought he had left his lewd addictions behind, but who now admits he's fallen off the wagon. There is a much stronger subplot involving Joy's sister, Trish (Allison Janney), who is involved with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a man she can envision will be a much better husband and father, to her son Timmy (Dylan Snyder), than her ex ever was. That ex, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), has just done a stint in prison for child molestation and is trying to find older son, Billy (Chris Marquette)—now in college—to assert he hasn't inherited his disturbing sexual proclivities.

The major issue I have with the film is Solondz's deliberate decision to recast all of the parts in the film. In a press conference after the screening, he states that it is because he wanted the two films to stand on their own. I must cry bullshit. Life During Wartime's first scene virtually begs the viewer to recall another iteration of the same scene in Happiness, linking Allen to the character of Andy (Jon Lovitz in the first film, now Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens) in the first film. Andy committed suicide, and keeps returning to haunt Joy in this film. This link is further cemented by the film's conclusion—which I won't reveal here. So why say you want the two films to stand apart, Todd? I believe it's because it makes things a bit easier for you.

Casting new actors who don't bring along the psychic baggage of the first film makes it far less complicated for the audience to identify and empathize with them. The Bill in this movie committed his crimes in the distant past, and we have never seen him orchestrate those crimes as we did in Happiness. Ditto Allen, who comes across quite sympathetic here, unlike his passive-AGGRESSIVE depiction in the first film. The recasting allows Solondz to focus on the forgiveness part in a vacuum, almost as hearsay, divorced from the evil acts that one may find... well, unforgivable. It allows Solondz to deal with the characters almost as if they were new characters. For instance, if we accept that an actor brings some of himself to the role, then we can see where it might be far easier to forgive Hinds as Bill or Williams as Allen than it would be to forgive the original actors who played each role (Dylan Baker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively). Baker and Hoffman, for better or worse, have a smarmier and harder edge to them that makes us more resistant to the idea of each finding redemption.

It's a bit of a copout, really. And rather than help Life During Wartime stand alone, it distracted me to no end. Far better would it have been to address the themes of redemption and forgiveness in the context of a brand new story with new characters. But I believe Solondz wasn't going for that either, hoping instead that the events of Happiness would serve as a kind of shorthand that informs Life During Wartime, and freeing Solondz from doing any expository heavy-lifting. I can't even review the damn thing without talking about the first movie. You can't have it both ways, Todd.

Life During Wartime is playing at the 47th New York Film Festival, at 9 p.m. tonight and 11 a.m. tomorrow, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050

Photo Credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center


James Hansen said...

First of all, I thought this was just straight up bad, but I'm a bit perplexed by your review, Tony. Isn't the idea that after getting out of prison and being rehabilitated that someone is a kind of new person? This is an experiment in that direction, for sure. I just don't see the double standard or attempt to have it both ways. True, dramatic background is taken from the other film and we don't see the bad things that people do, although they are explicitly referred to. If anything, Solondz is selling short the sort of unique experiment this could be when seen next to HAPPINESS. I think its a failure in many other ways, but I have to say I'm a bit confused by your beef with it. The doubling factor fits into everything the film is trying to accomplish and even seems to fit your own description of what the film is and how it works.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'll clarify. I swear, I've written so many reviews this week, I might be burnt out and failing to comunicate effectively.

"Isn't the idea that after getting out of prison and being rehabilitated that someone is a kind of new person?"

Then why recast all of the characters. Is he implying that they've all been in a form of prison. I'm not sure that's the case.

I think that's only the central dilemma in the picture for the character of Bill. Should he be considered a "new person" after paying his debt to society? Solondz seems to ask that question. But I think the question is only fair (in this world... not necessarily in all films) if you can judge the character holistically. To recast the part is for the director to already give the edge to the argument, Yes this is a new person. And I believe it's a cheat that influences the audience, robbing them from deciding for themselves.

"True, dramatic background is taken from the other film and we don't see the bad things that people do, although they are explicitly referred to."

Not exactly, Allen's crime is never explicitly mentioned, and in fact several tweaks seem to have been put in place to imply that he was involved in street crime in addition to his obscene calling, something that only confuses the issue for those who've seen both films.

Even though you might dislike the film, I gather you think the doubling was sort of the point. I thought it was a cheap trick, an easy way out.

James Hansen said...

I guess I just wasn't influenced by the double casting. I mean, it is pushing the point (yes, this is a new person), but I don't think its a cheat because of the way the movie is made...everything is so orange and plastic looking that there is no reason to believe any of the changes or any of the people are actually authentic, even with the casting changes. The look was a way of confronting those ideas and making it not totally stacked in favor of the people.

My brief review is up at Out 1, so you can see more of my thoughts. I think I'm just not willing to give as much credit to Solondz for being able to manipulate. I didn't feel manipulated...I just thought it was insufferable. :-)

Barbara Butch said...

I went to the Sunday morning screening of Life during wartime with a lot of anticipation. Happiness ranks really high in my favorite movies list, because of its dark humor and how it masterfully plays with the audience's taboos and preconceptions. But also because the movie is so damn perfect: everything fits, all the parallel stories come together, the actors are superb, the ending is genius ("I came!"). It's just brilliant. This (non-)follow-up left me with a big "Meh". The acting was in some cases really sub-par compared to Happiness, where despite the dark comedy tone, you could really feel for the characters. And yes, the re-cast WAS distracting. I couldn't stop thinking about the first movie. But I also thought that the parallel stories didn't come together as flawlessly and naturally as in Happiness. Life during wartime felt more patched together than masterfully edited and thought.
It's a shame.... I wish Solondz would make Happiness a series, and come out with a sequel every year - that's how brilliant I thought it was. Tough act to follow, probably. But next time Todd, try to call Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Ben Gazzara, and Jane Adams. And all the others. Please. Don't give up.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for your comment Barbara. Though I am not as big a fan as you are of Happiness it is undeniable a good film, and far superior to this pseudo-sequel, something I think all of us agree on.