You gotta give it to a guy like Todd Solondz. The dude’s movies get weirder and more perverse with each passing festival circuit. He aims to shock, appall and, most importantly, make you think. It would be easy to write Solondz off as a smut hack. Don’t. Look closer.
Solondz’s first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was an indie sensation. It dealt with teenage angst in a way American audiences hadn’t seen. Happiness, an epic character study about love, loss, pedophilia, sexual harassment and more, is indeed great, even if its content is grimacing. But since Happiness, Solondz has taken his extremes to new levels.
Storytelling is less remembered for its multi-narrative format than for Solondz’s infamous antics surrounding it. (He mocked the MPAA by plastering a huge red square over the bodies of two actors during a particularly rowdy sex scene.) In the little-seen Palindromes, the main character, a 12-year-old girl, is played by eight different actors of various genders and races. If anything, you remember how these films shocked you, and not how they were uniquely conceived.
Now we get Life During Wartime, a quasi-sequel to Happiness with a complete re-cast of characters. Michael K. Williams (unforgettable as Omar in The Wire) replaces Philip Seymour Hoffman was a prank-calling pervert. Ciaran Hinds steps in the shoes of Dylan Baker as a seriously disturbed pedophilic monster. Lara Flynn Boyle is now Ally Sheedy, and so on. The reshaping of the cast isn’t important, it’s just a gimmick. What Solondz wants you to realize, I think, is that no matter who says or does it, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s been said, or done.
Taking its title from a Taking Heads song, Life During Wartime is presented far more abstractly than Happiness. At its root, it’s still about a family of three sisters and their struggles with sex and life and love. And while little is explained, one of the film’s biggest downfalls is that you need to have seen the first film to fully be able to keep up; not a fair conclusion for a movie that came out 12 years ago.
If there are highlights it’s in Ciaran Hinds and Paul Reubens (yes, Mr. Herman). Fresh out of prison, Hinds’ first few scenes are wisely wordless as he slowly makes his way to the Florida coast in search of his family. We’re not entirely sure what he is planning to do, but with Hinds locked in a steady look of utter conviction, it’s impossible to not want to follow him.
Reubens, taking over Jon Lovitz’s role, pops up in a few scenes as the tortured ghost of Shirley Henderson’s ex boyfriend. Watch Reubens’ eyes as they swell red with anger and self-regret. I haven’t seen Pee Wee in a while (Blow, maybe?) but damn if he doesn’t steal the show.
If you’re a Solondz fan, you’ve probably already bought a ticket for Life During Wartime. If you’re a newbie to Solondz’s warped view of American culture, then save this one for later. Either way: be warned. Solondz’s dialogue is written specifically to cut directly to the bone. Something he has seemingly perfected, but always to your liking. B-