this article originally appeared at www.thisisfyf.com
I am terribly, wonderfully excited about the new Todd Solondz film ‘Life During Wartime’ and its amazing cast which, can we talk about Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Ciaran Hinds, and Paul Reubens and Charlotte Rampling and Ally-fucking-Sheedy!?
Ciaran I have been watching closely since ‘Margot at the Wedding’ and I very much appreciate his low-key approach to acting; he can easily convey strength or a sinister cat-like presence (puma, not tabby) and turn from one to the other on a dime. Frankly, I am just glad to see Paul Reubens is getting his shit together, and I look forward to seeing him as Pee Wee on Broadway this fall.
And Allison Janney; well, yes. This is neither the time, nor the place. Just… yes.
In Jonah Weiner’s piece in the Times yesterday, it was interesting to hear Mr. Solondz discuss the differences between ‘Wartime’ and ‘Happiness,’ his 1998 film of which it is a sequel. There was the usual industry chitchat about ‘wider audiences’ and ‘accessibility’ and even Solondz himself expressed the view that this is probably a more mature film than he was capable of ten years ago.
But that is neither here nor there, and remains to be seen. What I found most interesting was his choice to replace the entirety of the cast of ‘Happiness’ and have the characters played, ten years later, by an entirely different troupe of actors. This was mentioned, in passing, in the Times article, but I find it to be perhaps the most telling and important aspect of the film.
In his last film ‘Storytelling’ he had one character played by multiple actresses, and a quick cynical glance might lead one to think this was just a gimmick or ploy to appeal to art-house audience, or that he wanted to use bigger names to increase his box office draw. I don’t believe this is the case.
In the article, Solondz states that one could see it as “a post-traumatic-stress-disorder movie.” Hence the titles, alluding to the symptoms of extreme mental strain and violence that many soldiers suffer upon return from war zones. Anyone who has seen a Todd Solondz film, and ‘Happiness’ in particular, knows his characters are not very kind to each other (this, being an understatement you see). Pedophilia, interracial rape, cerebral palsy, and New Jersey are the main subjects of his oeuvre; all things that can make even the hardest amongst us bat an eye.
The characters we meet in ‘Happiness’ and re-acquaint ourselves with in ‘Life During Wartime’ have been through a war, of sorts. A mental trial that broke many of them, and caused others to run for shelter and create new lives and identities for themselves far away from their troubled pasts.
It only makes sense that they would be played by different actors. Solondz is telling us that these are not the same people they were over ten years ago. They have been battered and broken and re-shaped both by their own will power and by unrelenting external cultural forces. They are radically changed both to us and themselves and to be honest to these characters and the damage and radical alteration that has been done to them, Solondz had to seek out actors who filled the traits and characteristics in the characters as he saw them ‘today,’ and not as they were ten years ago. If he had cast them using the same people, we would have probably seen a lot of the same character traits and inflections as we had prior, and the film and its characters would not have grown but rather grown stale.
Solondz has often been criticized as being cruel to his subjects, or looking at them with loathing and contempt. Watching his films I feel a certain amount of pity, and sometimes loathing – BUT HAVE YOU MET PEOPLE!? I also feel for them, they feel like real imperfect people who might (and do, I’m sure) actually exist in the real world – more real than the majority of stock characters who inhabit the multiplexes of the world. I think, by carefully selecting a new crop of actors to play characters who obviously mean something to him if he took the time to return to them, Todd Solondz is in his own way showing us that he does in fact care for his characters, and rather deeply.