Tuesday, 11 May 2010

'Life During Wartime' review: Honest, devastating, non-judgemental black comedy…

‘Life During Wartime’ is Todd Solondz sequel to 1998’s ‘Happiness’, albeit a sequel with a completely different cast of actors. Solondz makes some unusual but ingenious casting switches too, as he replaces the white Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the black Michael K. Williams, the genius who played Omar in HBO’s ‘The Wire’. Paul Reubens comes in for Jon Lovitz, whilst Allison Janney replaces Cynthia Stevenson. These are clever choices on the part of Solondz, as the film doesn’t feel like a ‘Happiness’ B-team picture, with smaller stars, but rather it feels as though he has chosen to make some interesting changes. Even though the actors have changed completely, the characters somehow remain the same in terms of mannerisms. It’s very cleverly done.

‘Life During Wartime’ reminded me of the Coen Brother’s ‘A Serious Man’ in it’s portrayal of suburban life, with a dash of Woody Allen whenever we meet Jane Adams’ character (Joy), with her east-coast intellectual neurosis. In terms of form, I always enjoy when a director employs a still camera with very composed, stylised shots and this is exactly what we get from Solondz. It is also beautiful to look at in terms of the cinematography; ‘Life During Wartime’ (Edward Lachman) is almost totally distinct from ‘Happiness’ (Maryse Alberti) with a brighter, less dowdy colour palette, which in its own way actually heightens the darkness of the film by contrasting with it. The difference between the look of the two films is clear and especially evident if you compare scenes set on the same locations.

All the performances are good, with Ciaran Hinds able to bring a kind of quiet dignity, as well as a potentially dangerous edge, to his role as the convicted paedophile father, whose past crimes cast a shadow over much of the movie. His unbearably tense and fraught meeting with his (now grown-up) son, Billy (Chris Marquette) is able to convey so many emotions, all of them complicated, some of them contradictory. As in ‘Happiness’, Solondz is able to make Bill a rounded character and not just a figure primed for reactionary moralising and self-righteous indignation. ‘Life During Wartime’ is (like many of my favourite films) deeply humanistic and also offers no easy answers to complicated problems. Solondz doesn’t judge his characters and we don’t either. We are just forced to bare complicit witness the tragedy of their lives.

By far the best reason to see ‘Life During Wartime’ (aside from the performances, the drama and the directorial precision) is for the riotous black comedy. As with Chris Morris’ ‘Four Lions’, some may squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, but I personally found it struck the right note throughout. Solondz never pulls back, never flinches. We are always taken right to the dark core of his chosen subject matter and we laugh along the way. It is often said that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry – that laughter is the best medicine. In Solondz case this is true, as he examines difficult social problems which, without his wonderfully comic writing, might prove too much to bear.

‘Life During Wartime’ is an excellent film of the very highest calibre. If you can find it still playing, a few weeks into its UK run, then go off and see it immediately. Maybe in a double-bill with ‘Four Lions’, if you can take your comedy without being patronised or cuddled. You owe it to yourself to see both of these films.

'Life During Wartime' came out a few weeks ago and if you can still find it, it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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