It's a truism that disillusioned optimists make the best cynics, that critics who make the unkindest remarks are the most passionate admirers of art. In Todd Solondz, we have a filmmaker whose cinema of urban misery and all-round misanthropy springs from an underlying humanism. His films can be depressing and truth be told, might be better suited to a graphic novel. Typically, his characters feel as though they've emerged from the bowels of Philip Roth, wallowing in a pit of misery, feeding on a diet of self-inflicted disappointment and failure. Their neediness can be so encompassing, embarrassing, and creepy that it's emotionally draining to sit through at one go any of Todd Solondz's very well-crafted films.
At his worst, his previous films incongruously paired disparate elements of style, in Palindromes the cinema of everyday misanthropy, misery, and urban angst was poorly paired with bizarre fantasy and over-the-top theatricality. With Life During Wartime, Solondz is at top form by very lovingly dissecting the ugliness of the human condition under his cinematic microscope.
A pair of three sisters have a reunion of sorts in Florida. One gathers they are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, shattered before the start of this film. Eldest sister (Allison Janney) is a beleaguered single mum with a precocious yet naïve child, attempting to find romance and love years after her ex-husband (Ciaran Hinds) got caught as a paedophile. Middle sister (Ally Sheedy) is an artist ruined by success and the excesses it brings. Kid sister (Shirley Henderson) is a successful counsellor who nevertheless seems to have the habit of driving her love interests to suicide with her saintliness and neediness.
One gathers that this is hell and they are not out of it. And that's not because eldest sister is creating a train wreck by mollycoddling of her son or that her husband is now out of jail and in for some unannounced family time, or that kid sister is haunted by the ghost of the first ex-boyfriend she drove to suicide (played to great effect by Paul Reubens), or that middle sister finally has an audience to beat down with the story of a life ruined by success and celebrity. Yet if this is hell and they are not out of it, where exactly is this terrible force that is Todd Solondz driving all his wounded characters?
Very surprisingly, Life During Wartime is actually watchable. Very shockingly, it's even enjoyable. Yes, the film is about very needy, upper middle class people whining about their self-inflicted failures and pains while asking for forgiveness, redemption, and all that jazz. Yet the fun is all about how darkly funny navel gazing can become. Simple conversation (and indeed this film is basically groups of characters having one on one conversations) is exalted to the height of fine theatricality in the sense that every line is full of little ironies all happening at once.
Made with the keen observation and fondness for humanity that only a misanthropic humanist or a humanistic misanthrope can possess, Life During Wartime is a great film if you're in the right mood for it.