Todd Solondz doesn’t like that I said he had “contempt” for some (though not all) of his film’s characters.
It’s understandable; contempt is a strong word. “I think it’s just reductive. It’s not interesting,” Solondz tells me during the press tour for his sixth feature, Life During Wartime. Perhaps more appropriate charges would be “bleakness” or “pessimism.” Starting with his breakthrough, 1995’s middle-school saga Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz has crafted small, dark looks into middle-class America—“sad comedies,” as he describes them—that pull no punches and rarely go for the happy ending when the worst-case scenario will do.
“Pessimism in the right context is a good, healthy thing,” he retorts. “When we went to Iraq, was it good to be optimistic? Or maybe we should have been pessimistic. Some lives could have been saved if we hadn’t been so optimistic.”
As the Talking Heads-derived title suggests, war hangs in the background of the film’s characters, though it never explicitly intrudes. Describing Wartime as a post-9/11 film, Solondz says he wanted to “discuss the theme of forgiveness,” which he puts to the test by having the young Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) ask his mother Trish (Alison Janney) if the 9/11 terrorists could ever be forgiven. It’s not meant to be merely shocking.
“After the Twin Towers collapsed, there was a groundswell of people who wanted to do something,” he recalls. “It was very beautiful and precious. And I remember Giuliani replying, ‘Go shopping.’ It was such a slap in the face, such an obscenity. It underscores the sense of insularity that was being promoted and continues to be. We live in a country perpetually at war, regardless of the president.”
Life During Wartime could be called a sequel to Solondz’s notoriously grim 1998 Happiness; he prefers the term “quasi-sequel” or “variation.” That’s because the entire film has been recast, sometimes minimally, sometimes dramatically. It’s a big step from baby-faced everyman Dylan Baker, who originally played the pedophile Bill—Trish’s husband and Timmy’s father—to steely, intimidating Irish actor Ciaran Hinds.
“I love Dylan, and I love the way he looks and functions in [Happiness],” he says. “But I wanted someone who had the weight and gravitas, a more dead-man-walking, ghostlike husk of a soul, that Ciaran seems to embody.”
The shift from Jon Lovitz to Paul Reubens as a character who killed himself in Happiness and returns in dreams seems more slight. However, Reubens “has this whole history that brings a poignancy to his scenes.” Solondz calls it playful, albeit secretly. “In my head, he’s playing a character who probably has a Pee-Wee Herman doll at home.”
Solondz insists the recasting is not a gimmick. “I wanted to make it more interesting to me,” he says as explanation, though he does describe the recasting by saying “it’s almost like everyone’s a ghost of a former character.” But the idea of characters trying and failing to overcome past tragedies and change—like Bill, released from prison, or his ex-wife, Trish, seeking a new life in Florida—takes on another dimension when the characters have literally changed appearances.
“I think Americans buy into this myth of redemption. Polticians or celebrities do drugs, do drinking, do prostitutes, then they find God. It’s cyclical, and the public really rallies to this cycle, this paradigm of redemption. But my movie doesn’t operate that way,” he says. “We are only humans as defined by our own limitations, to the extent that we can accept, forgive, connect, embrace.”
It’s here that Solondz sounds downright hopeful. Trish spends the film answering difficult questions about pedophilia, homosexuality and terrorism from her very inquisitive son—a type seen in both Happiness and Storytelling—and usually giving him dodgy, canned answers like “the terrorists hate our freedom and democracy.” Solondz is quick to defend her questionable parenting choices, though. “She finds herself trying too hard to put herself out there, to create a new life, and going to places that aren’t expected of her. If you had a spouse who had such a crime and such a history, what do you tell your children?”
The same goes for Timmy, wrestling with matters he’s too young and sheltered to comprehend. “The inquisitiveness signifies a curiosity and a quest for understanding, which is something I always see in a positive way,” Solondz says. “Yes, he’s troubled. Yes, he’s confused. But that’s how you grow up. It makes for a richer life. I don’t see him with bleakness.”
Eventually the subject of 9/11 is raised, along with notions of recovery and forgiveness. Wartime is exciting because it genuinely seems to be exploring its subject, unsure of what it will lead us to find out.