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Friday, August 20, 2010

The Squirmometer: 'Life During Wartime'

YEAH, IM JON LOVITZ, THATS THE TICKET. Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson
  • IFC Films
  • YEAH, I'M JON LOVITZ, THAT'S THE TICKET. Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson
Director Todd Solondz pushed his audience’s comfort level nearly to the breaking point with Happiness, a prize-winning 1998 dramedy that remains his most successful film. Viewers watched with horrified fascination the bad luck and poor choices of his characters, most memorably Dylan Baker as a suburban family man willing to drug friends and family in order to slake his appetite for young boys.

Despite behavior that ranged from pathetic to grotesque, Happiness included moments of dark comedy, the ironic laughter breaking the awkward silences. Solondz may have tortured his characters, but he still elicited sympathy for them. The filmmaker returns for another self-loath-a-thon with Life During Wartime, a sequel that checks in on most of the first film’s players. The twist is no actor takes the same role. Here are the characters, their original players and the new substitutes:

Joy, would-be musician, mousy eldest sister: Jane Adams/Shirley Henderson:

Trish, middle sister, housewife married to Bill and mother of three: Cynthia Stevenson/Allison Janney:

Bill, psychotherapist and secret pedophile: Dylan Baker/Ciarin Hinds:

Helen, youngest sister, successful author turned screenwriter: Lara Flynn Boyle/Ally Sheedy:

Andy, self-destructive, ill-fated suitor to Joy: Jon Lovitz/Paul Reubens:

In addition, Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire”) seems to be playing the same role as Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but the character seems to have discrepancies that throw me off. The gimmick invites us to consider how the characters have changed over the years, given the actors’ different physical appearances and styles. Some have grown, but most have turned inward are reduced. Compared to Adams, Henderson suggests that Joy has regressed, with bushy, untended hair and eyebrows. Sheedy overacts with such a brittle, mannered performance, she’s clearly indicating that Helen’s a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Janney’s height and calm demeanor suggest that Trish has matured, even though she falls deeply in love for no good reason with a pro-Israel divorce (Michael Lerner).

After a decade in prison, Baker’s blandly handsome features collapsed into Hinds’ toady countenance. Paul Reubens makes an ingenious choice to fill in for Jon Lovitz, muting his Pee-Wee hyperactivity into cringing misery.

In Life During Wartime, characters compare pedophiles to terrorists, suggesting that Bill’s crimes hit the family like its own September 11. Solondz raises some intriguing issues about the nature and possibility of forgiveness, particularly in the face of unforgiveable deeds. Some of the film’s individual scenes are excellent, including most of the moments with Trish’s younger son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who gets a crash course in adulthood when he learns the truth about his father shortly before his Bar Mitzvah. Charlotte Rampling as ferocious, sexually aggressive older woman who picks up Bill, while Bill later has a mournful, failed attempt to reconcile with a family member.

Life During Wartime features moments of humiliation, disappointment and insulting outbursts, but it doesn’t leave you crawling out of your skin like Happiness. The sex scenes involve older people than we usually see getting it on in movies, but avoid the taboo-breaking kinks of the previous film. Solondz seems more withdrawn from the characters and explores fewer of their facets. His musical cues and framing of shots proves so sterile and controlled, it’s like we’re looking at scientific specimens rather than fellow human beings. Life During Wartime may be easier to watch compared to Happiness, but that feels like the opposite of a triumph.

Squirmiest actor: Henderson, whose poor posture, squeaking voice and halting delivery suggest that she’s disengaged to the point of near-catatonia.

Squirmiest moment
: Trish tells Timmy that Harvey makes her feel “wet all over.” Timmy: “Are you still wet?” Trish: “No, I dried myself with a paper towel.”

Squirmometer Reading: With 0 = wince-free and 10 = unwatchable uncomfortable, Life During Wartime gets a six. You see the characters squirm without feeling very inclined to squirm yourself. Happiness would get at least a nine.

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