Todd Solondz is back. True, only a small “k”(ing), but with a big “P”(ain), he’s returned to his small domain where he records the eruptions of despair in today’s America with lacerating effect.
Not for him the betrayals and wars of (right or left wing) politics. He brings it all down to the mundane, but still tragic failures of family life. Such as the pre-adolescent boy who learns that the father he was always told was dead is really a pedophile (whatever that is) who has just been released from prison.
That boy would have only been a toddler in Solondz’ Happiness, from 1998. In his new film, Life During Wartime, Solondz returns to those same characters, and we welcome them back. That film followed the three Jordan sisters, and others in varying stages of misery. Trish (Allison Janney), the wife of the pedophile, has since moved the family from New Jersey to Florida — closer to Mom — and strains to keep the truth from the children. But the loneliness eats at her. She starts a relationship with a man (Michael Lerner), divorced and lonely like herself, and she feels a kind of deliverance.
The eldest son, Billy(Chris Marquette), who was just entering puberty in the earlier film, is in college now. But Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), busy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, is the focus here. Starting with the taunts of bullies at school, he learns that his mother is concealing something from him. Something about his father’s past. When pressed to reveal the truth, she lays the groundwork for even more agony for the boy, and the loss of her own chance at happiness (that word again).
The film succeeds because Solondz holds so fiercely to his original idea: that the more horrible the truth, the more the audience will find itself laughing. But the laughter is not the safe, shallow kind found in garbage like The Hangover, where the characters have no emotion that is even remotely human. Granted, the characters in his films are more depressed, and confused, than average. But the destruction they cause is all too credible. Even frauds and abusers, he says, don’t leave wounds like the people who love us the most, especially when they’re trying to protect us.
While it’s good to see Solondz back on track, the ride is a little wobbly. Joy (Shirley Henderson), the youngest and most disturbed of the sisters, keeps hallucinating her dead ex-boyfriend (Paul Reubens), and the husband she has left in Boston (Michael K. Williams), but her scenes have the least dramatic conflict, and come off more like a clinical study. Similarly Bill (Ciaran Hinds), the released pedophile who begins stalking his family, is so rigid and anesthetized that his personal agony is too remote for sympathy. Still, his one-night stand with a woman in a bar (the great Charlotte Rampling), is one of the best in the film.
There won’t be crowds for this film. Total boxoffice will not be a third of Angelina’s opening week-end. And you can forget about Oscars — too misanthropic. Then again, it would be a kick to see young Dylan Riley Snyder get the supporting nomination he deserves.