Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Life During Wartime" Review

Todd Solondz might be the most polarizing comedy director no one’s ever heard of. The reputation of his films proceed them; a shroud of controversy seems to surround his work, which frequently depicts explicit sexuality, including pedophilia and rape, not to mention murder, exploitation, and ridicule channeled through a pitch-black misanthropic irony. And yet you might as well be speaking another language bringing up his name and filmography with a mainstream crowd. Even in the circles in which he’s known, his sense of humor is a decidedly acquired taste. So specific, in fact, that his latest film, “Life During Wartime,” may come as a shock to his fans. And not the sort of shock they’re used to.

A direct follow up to probably his most well known film, 1998’s “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” provides a notably more contemplative take on the lives of Solondz's characters, who have been deliberately and entirely recast for this sequel. Yes, it has its moments of biting humor, dark caricatures, and discomfort, but this time around, he approaches them with a subtler, more refined eye. “Happiness” is a busy, sprawling movie—“Wartime” is a brief string of conversations reactive to the action of that film.

It has the tendency to come off initially disappointing, perhaps because it is his least funny film. But if it is his least funny film, then it is intentionally so; for a director who has tirelessly redefined the term ‘mature content,’ Solondz finally feels as though he himself is maturing. The result may be less fun, but it’s probably more valuable.

And his characters breathe that maturation. In “Happiness,” Bill Maplewood (then Dylan Baker, now Ciarán Hinds) is a struggling pedophile; he is defined and condemned by the things he does. His reintroduction in “Life During Wartime” is upon release from prison, where his sole motive is to track down his son and conduct an amateur psychoanalysis on the damage his behavior caused. Hinds is solemn and introverted in the role; Baker was oily, narcissistic, and well—Childish, if you’ll forgive the phrase.

Maplewood’s recurring dream is a perfect visual metaphor for not only the changes he has undergone between films, but the tones of the films themselves. In “Happiness,” he dreams of an unspoiled park, complete with picnickers and strolling couples enjoying absolute tranquility—Before he loads an assault rifle and lays them all to waste. In “Wartime,” Maplewood revisits the park, where a single elusive individual, scrubbed and out of focus, turns to him with a rose in hand.

What I find most interesting, however, is not the way Solondz reconsiders these characters, but how he reconsiders the idea of the sequel. He’s dabbled before in casting multiple performers in a single role—His last film, “Palindromes,” had eight actresses portraying its protagonist. But with “Life During Wartime” he commits entirely, while at the same time creating a film purposefully asimilar to the existing work.

It may not be as exciting or as groundbreaking a film as “Happiness” is and was, but it’s more interesting for its reservations. The converse, ‘Hollywood’ approach would have been to outdo the original, to push the envelope even further, and the result would be infinitely less genuine. Instead, Solondz throws a curveball: treating his characters with unprecedented compassion (though only by comparison to his other films), and challenging our preconceived notions of both what a sequel is, and what a Todd Solondz film is.

“Life During Wartime” won’t win over many detractors (they probably haven’t heard of it anyway), and it even runs the risk of aliening fans expecting more vitriol—Leave it to Solondz to polarize audiences even when his shroud of controversy dissipates. The man has an absolutely uncompromising vision, and he’s still one of the greatest comedy directors working today, whether you’ve heard of him or not.


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