Life During Wartime (2009)

Directed by Todd Solondz

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I love Life During Wartime because I love Todd Solondz’s movies.  I have no idea where this might rank among his works or how good of a movie it is.  All I know is that it is uniquely Todd Solondz and I found several moments either very moving, very dark, very hilarious or all of the above.

This is an ensemble cast, all within or connected to one extended family, mostly in Miami.  They share a deep unease with the world, but some of them don’t yet realize it.  We will see the ways in which they are unhappy or trying in vain to be happy, as if such an attempt is in itself an act of rebellion against God or whatever force rules the universe.

In this movie, as in many of Solondz’s, it seems that to be satisfied, content or optimistic is an illusion.  The rug will be pulled out from under you at some point or another, and the arcs of his stories aren’t so much about what will happen to the main characters, just how long it will take for them to realize that their endeavors are pointless.

At the same time that might be too simplistic of a reading.  What I do know is that whether it’s this movie, StorytellingWelcome to the Dollhouse or Wiener Dog, his movies end with purposeful silences, the dark punchline to the rest of the joke.  It’s as if he knows you might be leaning in, waiting for some kind of catharsis, and then that’s where the story ends, with things falling apart or perhaps soon to fall apart.  His characters are often in a precarious balance with something, and in the end the scales tip not in their favor.

In Life During Wartime we deal with suicide, pedophilia, medicated children, 9/11, and terrorism.  In the middle of this storm of ideas is a group of characters trying their best to figure something out.  They are like Larry Gopnik in The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, a pushover of a main character who struggles to make sense of the sudden, strange occurrences around him.  In that film, the essence of which is ripped from the Bible, the universe actively, silently challenges Larry, pushing him to his breaking point to see if he’ll give in.

You get that feeling here, like even just the air in these environments is heavy.  The simple act of breathing, let alone talking, is labored.  Characters are tormented and ripped apart, both by their environment and more importantly by themselves.  They struggle to do the same things that, while difficult in life, often come easy in the movies.

One of them is Trish (Allison Janney), a mother of three who tells her youngest children that their father is dead.  In reality he’s a pedophile who was sent to prison, and when her youngest son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) finds out, she must try to explain that she meant to protect him.  Soon enough she will explain his behavior and assuage Timmy’s fears that he might become a pedophile too.  It turns out these are the same fears held by Trish’s college-aged son Billy (Chris Marquette), who in his only scene of the movie delivers perhaps the most heavy-hearted moments of the film, all while standing in front of a poster of two monkeys having sex.

Trish’s arc begins on a blind date with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a divorced man who moved into town to be near his adult son.  Harvey is very candid about his divorce, his sex life (or lack thereof) and his desire to be buried in Israel.  Between his short, wider stature and Janney’s tall, slender frame they make an intriguing couple.  Their head over heels infatuation with each other then feels all the more tender (or strange) because they seem so opposite as it is.

Trish’s sister, Joy (Shirley Henderson), works with criminals and seems to have a habit of dating them.  We open on a tense, tear-stricken conversation between her and one of these men, Allen (Michael K. Williams), which ends with her deciding to take a break from the marriage.  As she ventures down to see her sisters, she will have conversations with the ghost of her last boyfriend, Andy (Paul Reubens), who is manic and self-loathing and who, we learn, committed suicide.

When Joy finally sees Trish, her sister says she and Harvey plan to marry.  This exact moment now makes us regard Trish’s and Harvey’s relationship with the eyes of a cynic. Joy sees it the same way, and their conversation goes nowhere.

Then Joy goes to see Helen (Ally Sheedy), their sister in Los Angeles who has three Emmys.  She’s also dating Keanu Reeves, but she is deeply unhappy and self-righteous.  After their conversation similarly goes nowhere, Joy decides to return home to Allen.  As she leaves a message on his voicemail, we see that he has already committed suicide, just like Andy.

Helen’s story will end not with her learning of the suicide but even later on when she’s visited by Allen’s ghost in the bathroom, just as she was with Andy.  He asks her for a favor, to kill herself like he did and leave a note suggesting she’s not a good person.  She negotiates him down from a bullet to the temple to pills and alcohol.

The crux of the story is Timmy’s.  He’s soon to be Bar Mitzvah’d, and he’s writing an essay on what it means to be a man.  You’d think most thirteen year-olds would half-ass such a thing, coming up with a vague, possibly self-important answer but not really handling the prompt with care.  Well not Timmy, he takes this as seriously as if he were in charge of the Declaration of Independence.

Timmy speaks as if he’s the voice of the Forgotten Generation, the collective ghostly incarnate sent back through time using this child as a vessel.  Every word carries the weight of someone who has lived through a civil war, mostly because, it seems, he’s tormented by his father’s pedophilia.

Which is understandable, I mean, yeah, it’s understandable.

Life During Wartime is so absurdly grim, and it knows it.  That’s where the humor comes in.  To be sober is to feel nothing but despair, and anything that gets in the way will soon give way to that same despair.  The biggest example is in the conclusion to the relationship between Trish and Harvey, in which Timmy’s fears lead to a misunderstanding that immediately ends the relationship.

Timmy’s despair is like a loaded gun, and we’re just waiting for it to go off.

Up Next: Venom (2018), City Heat (1984), Detroit (2017)

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