DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
LIFE DURING WARTIME (director/writer: Todd Solondz; cinematographer: Ed Lachman; editor: Kevin Messman; cast: Shirley Henderson (Joy), Ciaran Hinds (Bill), Gaby Hoffman (Wanda), Allison Janney (Trish), Michael Lerner (Harvey), Chris Marquette (Billy), Charlotte Rampling (Jacqueline), Rich Pecci (Mark), Paul Reubens (Andy), Ally Sheedy (Helen), Dylan Riley Snyder (Timmy), Renée Taylor (Mona), Michael Kenneth Williams (Allen), Emma Hinz (Chloe), Rosalyn Ruff (Waitress); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Christine Kunewa Walker/Derrick Tseng; IFC Films; 2009)

 
"A daring tragicomedy revolving around the theme of forgiveness and forgetting in the post-9/11 years."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Indie filmmaker Todd Solondz ("Happiness"/"Welcome to the Dollhouse"/"Storytelling") takes his droll humor, eye for perversion, stomach for misery and Jewish angst dramatics to sunny South Florida instead of the suburbs of New Jersey, as he reintroduces us to the Jordans and Maplewoods from his 1999 Happiness and 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse (using different actors). It's a daring tragicomedy revolving around the theme of forgiveness and forgetting in the post-9/11 years, where a paranoid America is involved in an endless War on Terror that's divided the country and left personal relationships more screwed up than ever. Solondz is one of the few modern-day filmmakers to concern himself with the dark society rejects, an underclass of perverse characters living on the fringe, and when you examine such types what you see is often not very pleasant and not what you want to see. Therefore there's a bleak outlook for such emotionally stunted characters that pervades throughout the pic, that also weighs in on such hot button radio talk issues as interracial romance, anti-social feelings, terrorism, suicide, bleeding heart liberals, Jewish identity and pedophilia, as seen through the director's playful misanthropic eyes. 

It opens with the neurotic interracial couple, reformed ex-con sexual pervert Allen (Michael K. Williams) and the depressed naive ex-con correctional facility counselor Joy (Shirley Henderson), dining out to celebrate their wedding anniversary. But the happy occasion ends in disaster, as the waitress recognizes Allen's voice as a recent obscene phone caller and attacks him. Joy then leaves New Jersey and her hubby behind to think about the future of her marriage and reunites with her unhappy mother Mona (Renee Taylor) in South Florida. The anxiety-ridden Joy is still haunted by nightmarish visions of her pervert ex-boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens) trying to seduce her, and tragically discovers she only finds love when with the damaged goods degenerate Allen.

Also living in Florida is Joy's smug sister Trish (Allison Janney), the divorced mother of three. Trish's ex-husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), a psychotherapist imprisoned for pedophilia, who when released from jail is picked up at a South Beach bar by a cold elderly woman (Charlotte Rampling) who wants him to fuck her and after that unromantic one-night stand Bill tracks down his Oregon college student son Billy (Chris Marquette) and has a brief unfulfilling and awkward visit with him in his dorm room. Meanwhile Trish's son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah and wondering what it takes to be a man and have forgiveness, and recoils in horror when he learns his dad is alive and not dead as previously told by mom, and to boot he's a convicted pedophile as he alarmingly says to mom--"I don't want to be a faggot." The young daughter Chloe is an aspiring singer, who has a minor role. The self-satisfied Trish, despite her bad marriage experience still haunting her, is happy that she met an ordinary, though ugly and obese, normal divorced Jewish man, the affable Harvey (Michael Lerner), whom she fantasizes she loves because 'he makes her feel like a tulip who opened her petals' and vocally supports Israel.

The third sister of this dysfunctional family is the successful but bitchy guilt-ridden author Helen (Ally Sheedy), who lives in Florida but is estranged from the family, and whose volatile and unstable nature veers between her artistic integrity to her narcissistic vanity over her fame and fortune.

The self-absorbed Timmy, whom the pic revolves around as the true seeker of normalcy, has the last word as he says "I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father."

It's shot in brightly artificial pastel colors by cinematographer Ed Lachman, giving the pic a falsely beautiful plastic look.

Solondz's satire on the human condition has a special place for techy nerds in its heart, while the so-called straight people are bent out of shape trying to justify their limits and to find what's possible to forgive and forget about their lives--which is viewed as a contradiction, since to forget is not to forgive. The pic offers a sense of stagnation and hopelessness for its vics that makes their attempt to find happiness an impossibility. For Solondz one can find serenity by forgetting, but forgiveness is only in God's hands and therefore one at best can only achieve redemption until one meets his Maker.

It's a pointed film that aims to make the viewer uncomfortable and thereby think more deeply about things he may already have a vociferous opinion on, such as religion, family values and perversity. Very few films care to go this edgy rabbinical ethical philosophical route and Solondz should be applauded for taking this rough road through subjects alien to mainstream cinema, even if at times the ride does seem a little too bumpy and that it's not reaching its intended destination.

REVIEWED ON 8/15/2011       GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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