Chapter Two: Life During Wartime
By Brett Ballard-Beach
August 16, 2012
“We dress like students, we dress like housewives/Or in a suit and a tie/ I changed my hairstyle so many times now/ Don’t know what I look like” -- from Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime,” which is not featured in the film under discussion this week.
With Life During Wartime, his follow up to 1998’s polarizing feel-bad comedy Happiness, Todd Solondz is trying to break your heart. Building upon the outrage and narrative risks he evinced in the films that followed Happiness - Storytelling (2001) and Palindromes (2005) - Solondz leaves little doubt about his wells of compassion for his screwed-up lost souls. (Condescension toward his characters is a charge that has unfairly dogged the filmmaker his entire career, though its recurrence is easily understandable.) Solondz has never shown any interest in tidy endings or suggesting that his characters will find the measures of comfort they seek. After all, he did begin Palindromes with a funeral for Dawn Weiner, the pre-teen protagonist of his second and breakthrough feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), still his highest-grossing film.
Dollhouse and Happiness both relied heavily on shocking character behavior (more than narrative twists) and posited a world, largely centered in New Jersey, in which what would normally be dark secrets of the soul (bullying, obscene phone calls, pedophilia, dismemberment of a rapist) bubble up on the surface of his chatty character’s lives and acts of compassion or foundering attempts at moral decency are delivered apologetically, haltingly - and are usually received or answered with derision and scorn - or not at all.
Happiness received a fair amount of praise upon its release, is still his highest rated movie at Rotten Tomatoes, and if any one of his seven features could be considered “definitive Todd Solondz,” my guess is it would be that. Out of the five I have seen, however (I haven’t seen his first, 1989’s comedy-musical Fear Anxiety and Depression, nor this year’s Dark Horse), I would dub it his weakest, for several reasons, that are perhaps purely personal. Clocking in at over two and a quarter hours, Happiness is Solondz’s longest film by nearly 45 minutes. Running times are almost never an issue with me, but Happiness is a film of little scope saddled with an epic length that it can’t support. Solondz’s modus operandi - individual scenes staged for maximum impact without concern for a plotline that needs to get from A to B and which often swerves off onto a completely unforeseeable tangent - feels just right at an hour and a half, but grueling when extended past that.
As noted, I don’t subscribe to the notion that Solondz mocks his characters, but with Happiness, he seems to be submitting them to an escalating game of “You think you have it bad, but…” in which, say, the schlubby whiny call center guy who lusts after the self-loathing self-obsessed author but can only approach her via talking dirty on the phone, is relentlessly “stalked” by the neighbor down the hall with supreme intimacy issues who quite off-handedly tells him what fate befell the building doorman who got rough with her. I do, however, persist in thinking of Happiness as an R-rated feature-length sitcom pilot.