A limper stab at ‘Happiness’


Todd Solondz revisits alienation, depression in America’s heartland

In American cinema, being a provocateur doesn’t pay, although you may see your innovations ripped off by more successful directors. Twelve years ago, Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” felt like a refreshing breath of foul air — a welcome riposte to the conservative romanticization of small towns and suburbs. Instead of Sarah Palin’s “real America,” “Happiness” showed a hotbed of alienation and perverse sexuality, topped off by a sympathetic pedophile. Its original distributor dropped the film, but it was a modest arthouse hit, despite being hated by many critics.

Solondz’s depressive worldview quickly grew stale when appropriated by less talented filmmakers, especially “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball. The subversion of cliché had become a cliché itself. By 2003, it seemed as though every other American indie film was about dysfunctional families and incest. Solondz himself floundered — his subsequent “Storytelling” and “Palindromes” were so whiny and gimmicky, respectively, that I wondered what I’d ever seen in his work.

“Life During Wartime” isn’t exactly a return to form, but it comes close to being worth taken as seriously as it views itself.

A sequel to “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” takes place about a decade afterward. Its characters return, but they’re played by different actors this time around. Joy (Shirley Henderson) has a talk with Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) about his tendency to harass women on the phone. She also receives visits from the ghost of her dead boyfriend, Andy (Paul Reubens). Her sisters face difficult dilemmas as well. Trish (Alison Janney) was married to Bill (Ciarán Hinds), a psychiatrist arrested for molesting boys. She meets a new man (Michael Lerner) and romances him, while his son (Rich Pecci) copes with feelings of alienation.

One of Solondz’s best decisions was hiring Ed Lachman as cinematographer. Solondz’s films have never been distinguished by their visual style, and “Life During Wartime” is the first one with a distinctive look. Shooting on high-definition video, Lachman bathes the actors in light, creating a style that emphasizes its own artificiality. Even scenes shot outdoors in the middle of the day look stylized and overly bright.

“Life During Wartime” is essentially a string of conversations, and Solondz’s decisions about how to frame and edit them show his weaknesses as a director. Each conversation is depicted in an unimaginative shot/ counter-shot sequence. Solondz relies on close-ups and two-shots, and seems terrified of breaking the rules of conventional film grammar, choosing an odd angle, or moving too far from his actors.

As a friend suggested to me, “Life During Wartime” feels like it was cut down from a much longer film; “Happiness” ran well over two hours, but this sequel clocks in at a quick 97 minutes. It’s a disjointed assembly, with comic scenes alternating jarringly with evocations of despair. Solondz’s saving grace has always been his ability to leaven darkness with wit, but this tendency can devolve into cheap shots at his characters’ expense. Like the Coen brothers, he’s often been criticized for this.

In “Storytelling,” Solondz took on both his critics and the appropriation of his ideas in “American Beauty.” The results weren’t pretty. “Life During Wartime” glancingly touches on these issues, but its heart lies elsewhere. Heavy-handedly, it brings up the theme of forgiveness. Characters wonder whether pedophilia is equivalent to terrorism and if the 9/11 hijackers deserve forgiveness. Unfortunately, these topical touches practically scream out their own self-importance.

The politics of Solondz’s films function best when they work implicitly, as when he takes on Middle American mythologies about small towns or school, rather than when he makes a film explicitly about abortion, as in “Palindromes,” or attacks some Jewish Americans’ defense of Israel, as he does here at several points.

Solondz’s worldview, if not his talent, suggests a combination of Woody Allen and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Without presuming to know anything about his personal life, it’s fair to say that his films suggest deep personal experience with depression. However, Solondz often mocks his characters and their angst; here, that takes the form of adults doing or saying wildly inappropriate things to their children. A mother tells her boy that her date made her wet with horniness, while letting her daughter raid the medicine cabinet for tranquilizers and antidepressants.

Sexual anxiety is everywhere in “Life During Wartime.” No one’s gay, but everyone fears that they, or their children, might be. In the film’s most genuinely powerful scene, a boy, terrified by the warnings he’s heard about pedophilia and convinced that a mere touch can lead to arousal, freaks out when his mother’s boyfriend hugs him.

There’s a lot to dislike in “Life During Wartime.” There are also some real strengths and emotional insights. Solondz’s greatest gift has always been his direction of actors. He gets a truly haunted performance out of Ciarán Hinds. Bill is often silent, but Hinds’ body language reflects a deeply brooding nature. His desire to re-connect with the world after leaving prison rings truer than anything in a film that’s essentially a bluntly artificial landscape reflecting one man’s pain and too little else.