“Life During Wartime” could possibly be the most boring film ever written about pedophiles. Which isn’t all that surprising, considering this is the second movie writer-director Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) has devoted to the subject.
“Life During Wartime”
At the State
Solondz has always had a soft spot for stomach-churning shock value, penning jet-black comedies about phone sex addicts, teen pregnancy and everything in between. But while he’s never quite broken out of his psychosexual muckraker mold, “Life During Wartime” is his first film to feel like pure retread.
In fact, “Wartime” essentially plays like a half-assed remake of Solondz’s “Happiness” (his other pedophile flick): The opening scene is a lampoon of the opening scene in “Happiness,” a large majority of the characters’ names — and types — are recycled and entire conversations provoke an eye-rolling sense of déjà vu. (Seriously, how many times can we watch children asking their parents about male-on-male rape before it gets old? Twice, apparently.)
But, unlike “Happiness,” “Wartime” doesn’t crawl under your skin. While the film’s subject matter makes it sufficiently uncomfortable to watch throughout, the movie never quite punches you in the gut the way it wants to — partially due to the script’s auto-plagiarism and partially due to its on-the-nose-ness.
“Wartime” would be the perfect film to show in screenwriting classes as a textbook example of how not to write an ensemble character study. New characters crop up in nearly every scene, but instead of adding layers of psychological complexity they simply sit around and speak squarely about their emotions.
Virtually every encounter involves bruised souls reuniting, conversing blandly about how glad they are to see each other and “how hard” things must have been, and then seeking some form of mutual forgiveness. Although it’s likely that Solondz is satirizing the humdrum pettiness of human frailty, this sort of therapy-by-the-numbers scripting gets old fast.
It’s as if Solondz was sweating so hard to juggle as many motifs as possible that he completely forgot to flesh out engaging scenarios. Every adult male in the film is either a pedophile or suspected of being one, multiple characters sermonize vaguely about “pretending” (as if they’re all on some sort of telepathic hotline together) and — gasp — the film actually makes continuous references to the fact that our country is at war! How subversive!
Thankfully, Solondz’s knack for facetiously twisted art direction is in full force. Only he would choose to depict a 12-year-old boy holding a Twinkie after learning his pederast father is still alive. And the subtle way in which he juxtaposes his disturbed characters against garishly bright blow-up pools and perfectly spherical hedges in order to make them appear even more displaced is nothing short of genius.
While the majority of the script may read like an incredibly inefficient public service announcement, most of the acting is spot-on. Allison Janney (“Juno”) steals the show as a scatterbrained Jewish mother in limbo between cocooning her children and absentmindedly corrupting them. And newcomer Dylan Riley Snyder devastates as a preteen coming to terms with the fact that his long lost father sodomized boys his age, his involuntary lip-quivers provoking the classic Solondz squirm reflex.
In the end, “Wartime” is little more than a caricature of Solondz’s already relentlessly satirical aesthetic. While Solondz surely deemed it clever to write about a pseudo-rehabilitated phone sex offender who “only dials on Sundays now,” it’s this sort of tongue-in-cheek indulgence that ultimately prevents the film from being genuinely disturbing.