Relief from a summer movie season marked by blockbuster and franchise fatigue may come in the form of an extremely unlikely sequel. Opening this week, Life During Wartime is the fifth feature from writer/director Todd Solondz. Building off the experimental casting conceit that fueled his last film, Palindromes, in which multiple actresses of varying ages and races played the same character, Wartime revisits the family at the center of Happiness––his 1998 comedy of fear, loathing, and sex crimes in suburbia––with a whole new set of actors. Cynthia Stevenson’s passive-aggressive wife Trish has “grown up” into Allison Janney, while Jane Adams’s Joy has shrunken into Shirley Henderson and Lara Flynn Boyle’s novelist Helen has aged into a beautifully bitter, brittle Ally Sheedy. (See also J. Hoberman’s review, “Todd Solondz Returns with Life During Wartime.”)
“I wanted to have the freedom that recasting could give me,” Solondz said recently in New York, where he’s casting a film called Dark Horse, which he hopes to shoot in the fall. “To create a new life.”
While Wartime‘s sisters approximate realistically aged and increasingly neurotic versions of the Happiness women, the male roles—including Jon Lovitz’s doomed date Andy, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pathetic crank-caller Allen, and Dylan Baker’s child-molesting dad Bill Maplewood––have been recast for new subtext. Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens takes over for Lovitz, a jowly Ciarán Hinds replaces the babyfaced Baker, and Hoffman’s part is played by Michael K. Williams, best known as Omar on The Wire.
“I love Jon Lovitz, but Paul Reubens is a new thing altogether,” Solondz explains. “He has a whole history that you all know. So that experience has resonance, a certain pathos that I couldn’t otherwise access. I love Dylan Baker, but I needed someone with a kind of grogginess, a heaviness—this is a husk of a spent man. And I didn’t want an actor that would’ve in any way evoked Philip Seymour Hoffman.”
Solondz has moved the bulk of the action from New Jersey to Florida, where Trish has relocated her family in the hopes of forgetting her ex-husband’s pedophiliac crimes. “South Florida for me is kind of a mythical place where you can go tabula rasa, erase the past—it’s where OJ went after the murders,” he says cheerfully. “Visually, it has this wonderful flatness, a color palette of toothpaste that is inimitable.”
This breezy landscape of palm trees and stucco adds an extra layer of tension to the lives in solipsistic crisis, as do the photos of Israeli tanks decorating postmodern condos, and the War on Terror rhetoric infecting the angry exchanges between ex-lovers. For these characters, the political is so unavoidable that the only way to cope is to sink one’s head into the sand of the personal. Wartime reflects Solondz’s own anxiety over America’s increased role in the world, and the concurrent, ironic alienation of Americans. Completed in 2009, he calls it a “post-9/11 film.”
“I confess that, after 9/11, I really read a lot more of the news than I had before,” Solondz says. “And the movie was fueled by this terrible obscenity. I think we all can remember, after the catastrophe, one of the beautiful things that happened is that people really came together and were so earnest in wanting to do good: ‘What can we do? How can we help?’ It was a unique moment that was very beautiful. And then Giuliani answered the question, ‘Go shopping.’ ”
“Here we are, a country at war as we speak, and it’s so much of an abstraction. There’s a kind of soullessness that can condone this disengagement.”
Thus Wartime, while pointing directly back to Solondz’s past work, takes a step outside of a previously insular frame of reference. Solondz was one of the small cadre of American writer/directors who became instant indie-film brands via a Sundance splash in the 1990s: His second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize there in 1996, and went on to gross about $4.5 million in theaters, more than Clerks or Reservoir Dogs. Happiness, which premiered at Cannes in 1998, was produced and set to be distributed by October Pictures, the indie outfit that had recently been acquired by Universal Studios. The film won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, but also caused enough of a furor for its supposed sympathy for a pedophile that Universal, in accordance with their corporate parent, Seagram, refused to release it. Producers Ted Hope and James Schamus eventually rolled out Happiness under their Good Machine banner, and it found an audience—for better or for worse.
“At the time, Happiness seemed to take on almost a kind of rock-and-roll hipness,” Solondz remembers, not exactly proudly. “When it first played, it was late at night, and a college kid came up to me, kind of a little drunk [and said], ‘Man, I love your movie. It was great. It was great when that kid got raped—whoa!’ And then I knew that I was in trouble. I know I’m playing with fire, but it’s not exactly a turn-on. I didn’t think people would look at it that way.”
Happiness proved an early trial for the indie industry, dashing any fantasies that film studios moving into the acquisition, financing, and distribution of “small” films would value artistic merit or cultural cachet at the risk of damaging the larger brand and/or bottom line. Just over a decade later, the indie-film business is held aloft by tasteful crowd pleasers like Juno and The Kids Are All Right—”movies that would have been produced by studios in the old days,” Solondz notes—while audience-agitating auteurs such as himself plug away on the margins. Though less aggressively provocative than its predecessor, Life During Wartime is being released into what may be a more hostile climate.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s cyclical right now, what’s going on,” Solondz frets. “There’s been a kind of shift that we have to figure how to contend with: The 20th century was defined by the movie as the pre-eminent touchstone of pop culture. It no longer is. You now have to compete with the Internet, you compete with the TV with a thousand channels, the DVR, the piracy. Most people don’t wanna go out. I think the studio movies are doing well, [but] this 3-D thing seems out of desperation, like a replay of the ’50s, like, ‘My God, TV’s coming!’ The little movies, audiences, have dwindled. How many American filmmakers actually have careers outside of the studio system?”
Solondz himself has never taken a work-for-hire gig, or dabbled in TV, or directed a film he hasn’t written. He pays the bills by teaching at NYU. “I never thought, in a million years, I would ever want to teach,” he says. “Then I learned that they could give me a generous arrangement, and it could make my life much more manageable. It’s strange, because they have a school in Singapore, so I teach there in the fall for six weeks and then I teach in the spring for 12 weeks in New York. Singapore is a lot like Boca Raton, Florida—only instead of the Jews, you’ve got the Chinese.”
Speaking of Jews in Florida, faith plays a much more direct role in Wartime than it did in Happiness; with its ghosts crashing the physical world and plotlines dovetailing at a bar mitzvah, Solondz’s latest feels, in some sense, like a companion piece to the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. “In my head, the family was Jewish [in Happiness],” Solondz says. “Not Maplewood. Trish married a gentile. And look how she paid for it!”