With Todd Solondz's new film Dark Horse gathering acclaim among critics, we thought we'd look back today at Shlomo Schwartzberg's critical appraisal of the director's body of work when he reviewed Solondz's last picture.
In a way, the movie is a sequel to Happiness, with that film's same characters, but played by different actors - a pretentious conceit, coming from the same pointless place as Solondz's casting of various actors, of both genders, varying ages and colours, to incarnate the female lead in Palindromes. While pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has been imprisoned because of his deviants acts, his ex–wife Trish (Allison Janney) prepares to marry again, to Harvey (Michael Lerner), an amiable, disheveled nice guy who wants very much to be a good father to Trish’s two sons. Meanwhile, Trish’s sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) has problems of her own, with a vicious husband Allen (Michael K. Williams) and her own screwed up sense of self. There’s also a third sister in the picture, Helen (Ally Sheedy), a brittle Hollywood screenwriter who has a problematic relationship with her siblings, not least because she’s strongly anti–Zionist.
As for the politics of the film –- the title refers to the ongoing U.S. presence on Afghanistan/Iraq (the movie was released on the festival circuit in 2009) –- it's superficial and obvious. The war at home matches the war(s) abroad; wow, that's deep! (The movie's title likely also references the great Talking Heads song of the same name but I’d hate to link that work of art with this worthless film.) Sonlondz also throws in a few cheap shots at Israel –- still a relatively new phenomenon in films though, alas, not in life –- notably in a scene when Helen is framed by a huge poster of a Palestinian kid facing down an Israeli tank. We get it, Todd; the Israelis are the bad guys here! Just don’t bother with any nuance or explanatory background on the conflict. Oh, and throw in a few lines of dialogue that showcase how foolish and uninformed the film’s Jews are for supporting Israel in the first place. Though most American Jews vote Democrat, Solondz is careful to point out that Harvey, and by extension Trish, supported George W. Bush because he’s pro–Israel, and we already know, from Hollywood movies, how voting for Bush is never a good thing. (At least, Solondz doesn't descend to the lower, amoral depths of the vile Storytelling (2001), wherein his Jewish protagonist gassed his own family.)
It quickly becomes clear, again, that Solondz is not the slightest bit interested in fashioning a movie with any depth or shadings. Yet, he shows a faint glimmer of being able to do, in one touching scene where Bill (who is otherwise an irritatingly opaque persona), freed from prison, visits his son in college. Their attempt to connect emotionally and meet each other in a place of mutual understanding is very well done and memorable. Add the fact that this movie, more so than any of Solondz’s others, actually feels like the work of a genuine director and one can be forgiven for getting one’s hopes up and contemplating a time when he might just make a layered, thoughtful movie. However, since most of Life During Wartime conspicuously lacks those very same qualities, that’s only wishful thinking at best.