Life During Wartime
Todd Solandz--Same Old Thing
By Cole Smithey
Todd Solandz is back once again to beat his convoluted dead-horse themes of race relations and schmaltzy pedophilia. A bookend to his 1998 feel-bad effort "Happiness," "Life During Wartime" reminds us with its theme song that indeed America is still enduring two wars that it would rather forget, or at least redirect the trillions of dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan on economic problems in the good ole U. S. of A. However, the title is misleading because war is an incidental footnote to a gumball rally of pervs, their victims, and not-so-innocent bystanders that fill the film's Jewish Miami setting. Ciaran Hinds takes over the pedophile role of Bill Mablewood that Dylan Baker played in "Happiness." Bill is on the brink of being released from prison just as his ex-wife Trish (Allison Janney) is finally getting on sound romantic footing with a decent new guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) who loves Israel as much as she does. Trish's youngest son, 12-year-old Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), looks forward to his bar mitzvah, but is devastated to learn that the father he had been told was dead, is in fact a convicted pedophile about to be released from prison.
An uncomfortable reunion between their ex-con dad and Timmy's college-aged brother Billy (Chris Marquette)--that Bill Sr. once molested--is enough to curdle milk in your stomach. The filmmaker constructs talky scenes that serve as narrative puzzle pieces that sort of fit together if the viewer is willing to fill in the blanks. Of the other troubled characters that populate the film's circle of depressed individuals, there's the childlike Joy (Shirley Henderson), a poor judge of character who spends quality time with her not-so-reformed-ex-con husband (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the ghost of her ex-boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide and still wants to torment Joy with his emotional pain. Joy might not be very smart but she is patient--more patient than most audiences will be.
Todd Solandz has worn out his welcome as an enfant terrible. He's too old for that pose. Here is an undisciplined filmmaker who specializes in conjuring up creepy scenarios between adults and children to an undisclosed thematic goal. A fumbled attempt at creating an overriding statement about "forgetting but not forgiving," backfires on a film that elicits just such a reaction from its audience.
New Jersey-born Todd Solandz burst onto the post-Tarantino indie free-for-all in 1995 with "Welcome to the Dollhouse." It was a respectable dark comedy about Dawn, a 7th grade insecure outsider (Heather Matarazzo) whose ugly glasses barely contained her boiling lust for life. With his own affectation of gratuitous horn-rimmed glasses, Solandz struck a pose as an angry young independent filmmaker unwilling to compromise. Critics wined and dined on his sarcasm but it took Solandz three years to make his next film "Happiness," and the cracks in the facade were beginning to show. Here was an exploitation filmmaker piecing together reprehensible behavioral traits into a conglomeration of unlikable characters ala John Waters, except without the charm. Between more three-year breaks, Solandz produced "Storytelling" (2001) and "Palindromes" (2004) that equally displayed a similar tin ear for the daily struggles of ethically challenged people and their victims.
It's clear that Todd Solandz has some serious social issues he's attempting to work out in his films, but his limited grasp of dramaturgy prevents him from expressing his garbled objectives. If we are all so easily manipulated by our own lusts and misunderstood loyalties as the characters in "Life During Wartime" then war must necessarily be an ongoing fact of life that will never cease.
Rated R. 109 mins. (C-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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