Elegant opening credits, written as if calligraphy on a wedding invitation, yield to a couple in blunt close-up — unhappy, interracial, tearfully celebrating their anniversary in a shopping-mall restaurant. After an unfathomable exchange, he presents her with an antique bowl found on eBay and, after reciting a guffaw-worthy litany of sins, promises to turn over a new leaf. The waitress appears, recognizes the sinner, freaks out, and spits in his tearful face. Violins herald the title: Life During Wartime.
Daring the discomfited viewer to laugh at shame and suffering, and then wonder why we're laughing, Todd Solondz is back. Life During Wartime, which won Best Screenplay at Venice and had its local premiere at the New York Film Festival, shows the misanthropic moralizer as confounding and trigger-happy as ever, his big clown thumb poised over a garish assortment of hot buttons — race, suicide, autism, sexual misery, self-hatred, Israel, and, his old favorite, pedophilia.
Life During Wartime's opening echoes that of Solondz's relentlessly miserablist comedy Happiness (1998), to which the new movie is both sequel and remake. The three Jordan sisters — banal Trish, the self-satisfied mom; high-strung Helen, the bitchy career gal; and hapless Joy, the professional bleeding heart — are back, albeit played by an alternate trio of actresses (Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Shirley Henderson respectively). Trish has relocated from suburban New Jersey to south Florida, where fragile little Joy arrives for a visit.
Newly separated from her husband, Joy is increasingly disassociated. Trish, however, is only a smidge chastened — even though Happiness ended, a decade or so before, with her model husband, Bill, en route to prison for drugging and raping several of his son Billy's fifth-grade classmates. Now, Billy is in college, and Bill (having morphed from bland Dylan Baker to grim Ciarán Hinds) is about to be released just as younger son Timmy (Dylan Snyder), who's been told his father is dead, is preparing to become a man with a bar mitzvah speech full of quasi-religious masochistic imagery.
The movie's central character, Timmy is a familiar Solondz child: literal-minded, self-absorbed, and very anxious — a version of the officious kid who self-righteously persecuted his family's Salvadoran housekeeper in Storytelling (2002), still the leanest and meanest articulation of the Solondz worldview. Adding to the oeuvre's sense of incestuous familiarity, Trish is contemplating a remarriage that would join her dysfunctional family with Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse clan, also arrived in the Sunshine State; her beau is Harvey Wiener (played by Michael Lerner as an affable troll).
Domestic melodrama is Solondz's meat. Assorted dreams and hallucinations, embarrassing parent-child interactions, and other forms of intimacy are presented with affectless objectivity. The mode is uninflected hysteria: In his highly deliberate compositions, not to mention his use of silent reaction shots and deadpan line-readings, Solondz is a true descendant of R.W. Fassbinder. Family relations are never less than fraught, and sex is always scary. Much of the interaction is excruciatingly alienated. Told by the kids in school that his dad is alive and pervy, Timmy asks his mother to explain homosexual sex ("I don't want to be a faggot," he whines). Her idiotic response sets up for the tragicomedy to follow.
Solondz understands the misery of children. The pitiful longing for a father articulated by both of Bill's sons is, for him, the essence of religion. (The Hebrew prayer "Avenu Malkenu" — "Our Father, Our King" — is heard at a critical juncture.) Seldom straying beyond the confines of a Jewish family, he is all too aware that suffering does not ennoble. But does the filmmaker have compassion or contempt for his characters? Is it possible to feel both? Solondz's sensibility has obvious affinities to such masters of cruelty as Neil LaBute or, particularly since A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers — but he is less smugly punitive and more obviously tormented. A humanist he's not, but he does seem allergic to hypocrisy.
In Happiness, Solondz sought to test the limits of audience tolerance by making a child molester the most sympathetic character in a cast of gargoyles. Many people, including his original distributor, found that unforgivable. Life During Wartime shifts the sin from pedophilia to a phobic fear of pedophilia. I don't think this movie is his apology for Happiness, but given its equivocating title, perhaps he's thinking of it. Life During Wartime's key scene is the sexual encounter between newly released Bill and the lonely, leathery, self-described monster (Charlotte Rampling) he picks up in a South Beach bar. Where the pedophile argues for understanding and forgiveness, his case-hardened bedmate tells him that only losers expect the latter.
Life During Wartime is full of apologies, sincere and otherwise, only one of which is even partially accepted. (There's also a notable rehabilitation role for Paul Reubens.) The existential situation of atonement made and unaccepted goes to the heart of Solondz's theology: The expression of remorse is crucial. As a onetime yeshiva student, the filmmaker was taught that while it is incumbent upon a pious Jew to atone, only the Creator of the Universe can truly forgive. (As one character tells another, typically in a dream, "An eye for an eye . . . then comes forgiveness.")
However distasteful (see Palindromes), Solondz's movies are genuinely philosophical (ditto). Appearing for the third time in a Solondz movie, the hyperrational computer nerd Mark Wiener functions in the filmmaker's oeuvre as the increasingly Asperger'd voice of experience. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Mark advised his younger sister, Dawn, that high school would be better than junior high — not so, evidently. Palindromes is prefaced by a dedication that notes Dawn's suicide. There, Mark explains his philosophy that people cannot change their basic nature. Toward the end of Life During Wartime, Mark responds to Timmy's increasingly shrill attempt to puzzle out the nature of forgiveness. Can you forgive someone who punches you in the face? A terrorist? Hitler? Your father?
Mark's logical conclusion is that the phrase "forgive and forget" is a meaningless contradiction. To forget a wrong is to nullify the act of forgiveness, and yet forgetting is ultimately the most absolute form of forgiving. Or, as the paradox-minded Franz Kafka put it, "The Messiah will arrive only when he is no longer needed."