Directed and written by Todd Solondz
Starring Shirley Henderson, Alison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Ciaran Hinds and Ally Sheedy
(This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23 December 2010.)
American-Jewish film director Todd Solondz is not known for his sunny, popular film-making. Instead, he makes challenging, darkly (that’s very darkly) humorous and challenging films, including Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling and Palindromes. His latest – Life During Wartime – opening in Australia on Boxing Day (December 26, 2010) after a preview at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival – operates as a semi-sequel to his 1998 film Happiness, set more-or-less ten years later. Most of the original film’s characters reappear, but they are all played by different actors, a neat, disconcerting and playful trick that will certainly entertain Solondz fans.
Life During Wartime is set around three Jewish New Jersey-born sisters: Joy (played by Shirley Henderson, who was “Moaning Myrtle” in the Harry Potter films), Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy). Joy has married badly, to an African-American man who makes obscene telephone calls. Trying to sort out her life, she visits Trish, now living in Florida with two of her children, and later Helen, who has moved to Los Angeles and become a successful writer, making references to a “Keanu” (presumably Keanu Reeves).
Trish’s ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), has just left prison, having been incarcerated for child molestation, and who is seeking some sort of resolution with his family and has a one-night stand with a self-described “monster” (played by Charlotte Rampling). Trish’s son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is studying for his Bar Mitzvah, and Trish advises him that if he is ever touched by a man that he should scream. Trish also has begun to go out with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a sensitive older Jewish man, and is particularly attracted to his support of Israel. “He voted for Bush and McCain,” she explains. “But only because of Israel. He knows those people are idiots.” This is Solondz’s Jewish context, which makes his films particularly interesting. There’s more, and all of this in a tightly written 90 minutes.
Life During Wartime was recently named as one of Time magazine’s “top ten” films of the year (as well as a number of others), so clearly it does connect with some people. Those people mainly appear to be film critics (it currently has a 68% “fresh” – or positive – rating from the film aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes), because the film only grossed USD$281,447 in its North American theatrical release (July to September 2010), hitting a maximum of 20 screens there. As of 25 December 2010 (according to Box Offfice Mojo), it had – ironically – done much better outside North America, with $486,569 gross box office (and this is not counting Australia from tomorrow onwards).
But it is one of those films you either love or hate: it’s a difficult film, extremely challenging for most viewers. Even though the film is frequently (and intentionally) hilarious and is about forgiveness and letting go, with its dark themes of paedophilia and its thoroughly miserable characters (even the ones who come back as ghosts), it’s tough going. This is a niche film, only recommended for those willing to engage with a highly demanding script; mainstream audiences need not apply.
The title of Life During Wartime is a clear reference to the post-September 11th American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many people assumed that those events and their aftermath would promote a return to patriotism in American films, a so-called “end of the age of irony” (so pronounced Graydon Carter in September 2001). We may have expected John Wayne, but instead have seen a return to the 1970s paranoid pessimism such as the Jason Bourne trilogy, Syriana and The Constant Gardener. In Life During Wartime, Solondz gives us a different response to the last decade of “American wartime”, nuanced, at times ugly but certainly thoughtful.