Music Feature

Blu-ray Review: Life During Wartime - Criterion Edition

by Piers Marchant
Return to Awkwardland.

Dir. Todd Solondz
Score: 6.4

The story (possibly apocryphal) goes that when Kafka used to read "Metamorphosis" to his friends, he'd bust up laughing. To him, the idea of young man suddenly turning into a cockroach and scurrying around his cramped bedroom as the rest of his family lived their normal lives was high comedy, even if it didn't exactly come across that way to the majority of his readership, who read it as a tragic metaphor for our capacity towards inhumanity.

Writer/director Todd Solondz can certainly sympathize. His films, which he has described as "sad comedies," have presumably been misconstrued his entire career. In his latest effort -- a sequel of sorts to his 1998 film, Happiness, albeit with a completely different cast -- we are returned to the romantic/sexual trials and tribulations of the Maplewood clan, formerly centered in Jersey, now mostly living near Miami. Despite the warm weather and the palm trees, though, the same angst and disturbing psycho-sexual meanderings still permeate through the family. Older sister Trish (Allison Janney) is busy falling in love with a recently divorced older man (Michael Lerner), to the confusion of her young son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, on the cusp of getting his bar mitzvah learns that his father, Bill (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), isn't dead, as he had been told by his mother, but, instead, is a pedophile, recently released from prison. Tearful Joy (Shirley Henderson), meanwhile, has married an ex-con (Michael K. Williams, in a decidedly different role from his character on "The Wire"), who may still be up to his old sexual deviancy tricks, and is haunted by a vision of her old flame, Andy (Paul Reubens), whose ghostly visage still pleads with her to be with him. Rich oldest sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), living in Hollywood as some kind of screenwriter, shacks up with Keanu Reeves (unseen), and toys with Joy's tender psyche in typically cruel fashion: "Can I give you some advice?" Helen asks Joy at one point. "Oh, please," Joy responds, enthusiastically. "No," Helen says, re-thinking it. "Actually, I have no advice for you."

As with a majority of Solondz' work, the comedic aspects are so shrouded by pain, misery and heartbreak, it's hard to read the punchlines. The film has an arch quality to it, not unlike that of a graphic novel, a heightened concentration of a reality-based concept, that makes it difficult to decipher. When Trish tells her anguished son, who has been accused of being gay by some bullies at school, "Timmy, listen, you are not a faggot," you aren't certain you should giggle, even though the line reading suggests you could. Solondz, who's oeuvre also includes Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling and the critically reviled Palindromes, never sanctions his jokes. He hasn't transformed any of his characters into insects (yet), but he still keeps his audience off-kilter in unfamiliar and often painful terrain without resorting to the strict absurdity or wild exaggeration of modern humor. Whether or not he does it for comedic effect, dramatic thunder, or both remains anyone's guess.

This special Criterion BD edition also features an audio Q & A with director Solondz, a making of doc, and interviews with many of the actors.

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