Helen (Ally Sheedy) has it all: a successful career as a screenwriter, great house near Hollywood and, at the moment, a boyfriend named Keanu. She's also got a laceratingly low opinion of the world, including her woeful sister Joy (Shirley Henderson), who is finally driven to ask, in her mousy manner, why Helen makes fun of her. That cues an explosion of rancor and self-pity. "Make fun?" Helen says, spitting the words like nails. "I try, Joy, I really do. But you and Keanu and everyone thinks I mock them that I'm cruel and condescending that I have no heart." She goes just a little teary. "And it's hard. It's really hard."
It's typical of Todd Solondz that, in his new Life During Wartime, he should give voice to a charge often made against his films that they mock the hapless creatures he puts on the screen and that he puts what might be his defense into the mouth of the movie's least sympathetic character.
That's saying something, considering that Solondz's other lost souls here include: Joy, a counselor for ex-cons, who falls disastrously in love with her clients; her husband Allen (Michael K. Williams), a semi-reformed obscene phone-caller who now does it "Just a little on Sundays"; her previous beau Andy (Paul Reubens), a suicide who still haunts, courts and abuses her from beyond the grave; Joy's other sister Trish (Alison Janney), who has moved from New Jersey to Miami to escape a disastrous marriage; Trish's ex-husband Bill (Ciarin Hinds), a convicted pedophile, whom Trish keeps saying is dead, but who's just been released from prison; their college-age son Billy (Cliff Marquette), who wishes his dad really were dead; their 12-year-old, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), approaching his bar mitzvah and tormented with issues of guilt and forgiveness; and their daughter Chloe (Emma Hinz), who, though just a child, already has mastered the family's depressive world view. At the dinner table she says, "Mommy, the baby carrots they're looking so sad."
But Helen is the lowest of the bunch: the one Life During Wartime character in whom Solondz doesn't seem emotionally invested. A mainstream screenwriter and a smoker (thus automatically forfeiting the indie audiences rooting interest), she's also a shrill scold who has fooled herself into believing she's a fearless truth-teller. That last part is the standard rap on Solondz films: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes and this one, which is a kind of sequel to Happiness. Helen and, by plausible extension, her creator feel pain on being told how easily inflicting pain comes to them. In her apologia, Helen might be paraphrasing Shylock: "When I prick you, do I not bleed?"
Even critics who admire the writer-director feel the need to address the discomfort level of his prickly oeuvre especially the 1998 Happiness, at whose heart was the relationship of an 11-year-old boy and his father, who had sexually abused some of the boys' classmates. Are Solondz's pictures comedies or dramas? Is his characters' misery (the one thing they have in common) to be seen as heartache or ridiculous self-absorption? Put it another way: Does Solondz hate his subjects?
You may as well ask if Richard Avedon and Francis Bacon hated theirs. The people in their photographs and portraits certainly don't look very nice. Solondz too paints his subjects warts and all maybe warts only. But I think he's fascinated by their crimes, great or small, and touched by their attempts to rationalize or conquer them, to live inside that creepy place. If we can crawl in, too, that's fine. But Solondz won't push a dogmatic line. I think he wants the viewer to say: Who are these awful people and why do I care about them?
Life During Wartime, which had its world premiere at last September's Venice Film Festival and is now opening in New York and Los Angeles, contains many of the same characters who were in Happiness, though all the roles are taken by different actors. Allen, played in Happiness by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is now African-American (Williams was the gay stick-up man Omar Little on HBO's The Wire). Joy's ex-beau Andy, originally Jon Lovitz, is now Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens, though he's just as unpredictable: apologizing one moment ("I'm sorry I said you were s--t and I was champagne"), threatening the next ("Why did I kill myself? I should have killed you!"). Some of the characters have aged more than others; and though the sisters Joy, Trish and Helen come from an explicitly Jewish family, they've been played by actresses who radiate a very gentile aura. That suits Solondz's tendency for eccentric casting. In the 2004 Palindromes, the role of a 12-year-old white girl was played by 10 different actors of different ages, sexes and races.