A closer look at Todd Solondz through his film “Life During Wartime”.
leeway [li-weɪ]; n; A margin of freedom or variation, as of activity, time, or expenditure; latitude. Room for free movement within limits, as in action or expenditure.
Todd Solondz’s career as a filmmaker started the way many have before and certainly others will follow – from a distance, gazing longingly at the possibility of telling stories with moving pictures, exploring ideas and themes, pushing boundaries with something to say, someone to criticize. As a courier, he delivered the words of others, scripts and notes and other such things. Later, when he got a chance to carry his own words, they were sharp and unflinching, at times funny, serious and always skewed by borderline disturbing. His films have been celebrated, criticized and mimicked. He prefers to examine than to portray, to unsettle and to challenge. His films are not for everyone and by the looks of things, he doesn’t mind that distinction at all.
Life During Wartime (2009) is another difficult film, his sixth feature. It is dark and depressing, dwells in dimly lit rooms where characters rooted in dismay and disappointment fall down a lot and have a hard time getting back to their feet. The setups are clumsy and contrived, too much to say about broken people rather than interesting relationships and opportunities to develop over time and circumstances. Fans of Solondz’s unique sense of humor and depravity will most likely feel right at home, but those less interested in deviance and dysfunction will have trouble finding something to latch on to. This is a sequel to Solondz’s 1998 film ‘Happiness’, though he’s recast the characters will different actors for some reason. It is uncertain whether this is an important factoid or simply fodder for DVD jackets, blogs and FAQs peppering the wasteland of the net. Other filmmakers have employed this for other reasons with varying levels of success – Todd Haynes’ cast six actors to depict different facets of Dylan’s life and public persona in his 2007 biographical music film I’m Not There; Terry Gilliam, facing the death of Heath Ledger half way into production for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in 2009, recast his role with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. We can’t help but draw rudimentary parallels to these films but Wartime never gets close enough to succeeding to warrant more serious examinations. Wartime operates on the premise that broken people in search for meaning in their lives will connect with audiences as familiar, personal pursuits waged everyday. Solondz wants us to believe that we can relate to extreme characters and sad-sack lives because at some point in our own falling down we are all emotionally and spiritually connected in loss and abandonment. Theoretically this idea makes for an interesting starting place but in practice it simply does not make us smile or reach across a crowd room to save someone who is incapable of meeting you half way in pursuit of saving themselves.
Life During Wartime charts the relationships of three sisters in the aftermath of bad decisions and the collateral damage of their lives against a backdrop of hopeful collisions with happiness. Five minutes into the film is enough to know we’re not going to like these characters. We might feel sorry for them, hope they make it over all the broken glass of their lives, but there is little room for meaningful connections. We’re never fully prepared for how pathetic these characters are and spend far too long waiting for the sisters to reveal growth and development. It is like watching children grow up over time but emotionally never advancing past the sixth grade. Dark barely scratches the surface, even by the morose standards of Solondz’s previous wounded work, and while he fuels sad with silly, often ridiculous pairings to knock us off our feet, it is impossible to shed oneself of the burden that comes with the material. This story is perhaps best taken at a distance, devoid of expectations and prefaced with a good deal of leeway; the fact is, Solondz really does have something to say even if he has trouble delivering it in an emotionally articulate way.
Solondz spends too much time with the underbelly of everyday people in his films, where depravity and strained emotional and psychological conduct dwells, and he’s not able to bring this to the forefront in an engaging and rewarding way. Alan Ball’s American Beauty operates in similar dark waters, so does Jason Reitman‘s Juno, and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘s Little Miss Sunshine, but they give us much more to celebrate, connect with and leave with a sense of belonging. Of course I’m not advocating for happy Hollywood endings, but there is something to say about embracing the need for affirmation rather than constantly slapping one with the brutal truth 24 frames a second. What makes those other films functional and broadly appealing is the balance of dark with light, strained with measured amounts of believable and appreciable characters. To say that characters in Solondz’s films are fractured shards of normalcy is accurate only so far as you accept the cutting realism comes from the least approachable bits. These are the people we see in windows across from ours, the meandering shadows in dark alleys, the man with a cart and plastic bag balloons stuffed with the unknowable. The trouble with portraiture of such ruin is that their stories are so unpalatable as to prevent all but the ardent supporter of hardcore realism from ever getting close enough to care. It is one thing to show us these broken bundles of near joyless automatons staggering through their lives and present them for our inspection and it is something entirely different to expect us to watch them toy with certainty, ultimately succumbing to sentimental failure.
Paul Ruben’s makes an appearance along with Michael Lerner, Ciaran Hinds, Alison Janney and others. Their roles are mostly overshadowed by one-dimensional dreariness. Solondz’s stories require a lot of leeway along with ample amounts of emotional armor so that you can get through it all and retain a sense of hope that we’re not all so damaged beyond repair. Maybe they make it to some end, find a way to live again, but it all just seems so overzealous for a movie that pairs pedophilia and suicide as interchangeable descriptions of persons neither living nor dead.