400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Todd Solondz's sixth feature film, Life During Wartime (14 screens), opened in theaters a few weeks ago. I've heard some people hailing it as his best film, but it has barely made much of a ripple in the big movie pond. His second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), had Siskel & Ebert buzzing, and his third, Happiness (1998), had everyone buzzing. And his last film, Palindromes (2004), at least had the power to piss off some people. I'm not sure what Todd has to do to get himself noticed these days, but apparently making a good film just isn't enough.
Life During Wartime is a semi-sequel to Happiness, a fact I did not know when I sat down to see it. (The press notes call it "part sequel, part variation.") I had only seen Happiness once, when I reviewed it back in 1998, but some of it stuck with me. I started recognizing some of the names, especially the name "Joy," which struck me as a wholly ironic name for someone wandering around inside a Solondz picture. Jane Adams played "Joy" in the first film, and here she's played by Shirley Henderson. After the film, I continued checking and found that all the names and characters from Happiness turn up here, played by an all-new cast. (Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy are particularly good.) Most of the characters continue on the same trajectory begun in the first film.
But there's something different here. Happiness was a deliberate button-pusher, a squirm-inducer, made with wickedness and a warped sense of humor. Twelve years seem to have softened Solondz somewhat. In Life During Wartime, he seems less interested in assaulting us with his characters, and more interested in listening to them. The characters seem to have acquired a new kind of sad wisdom, and the writing seems more connected now, more circular. Many scenes contain echoes of some other scene; it could be one of the few 2010 movies worth watching more than once and perhaps even studying.
The movie is still full of dark places so icky that the only thing you can do is laugh, but now the laughs seem more rooted, and more genuine. Solondz is also paying attention to his locations and setups; the Florida, Los Angeles and New York settings have a vivid atmosphere, and each room -- from an empty restaurant to a bedroom decorated with Emmy awards -- contributes something to the dialogue. The filmmaker even manages to have some scenes without dialogue, as we meet the ex-child molester Bill (Ciarán Hinds, formerly played by Dylan Baker) newly released from jail; he wanders the streets of Florida, perhaps taking the time to form his next step in his mind.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the film is that fact that Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) appears as the ghost of Joy's dead lover Andy (played by Jon Lovitz in the first film). Andy is established as a ghost, but a colleague of mine recently raised the question: what if he's not the only ghost in the film? (There's most definitely a second ghost that appears briefly toward the end, but what if there are even more?) Solondz has never been the happiest of filmmakers, but it's possible that he has found a measure of peace -- or at least acceptance -- from acknowledging and listening to his own ghosts.