Pursuit of Happiness | The Nation


Pursuit of Happiness

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From Leonardo DiCaprio, speaking in the respectable blockbuster of summer 2010, we learn that no virus multiplies more explosively than an idea; in which case, I'd like to know why the Centers for Disease Control allowed all those people to watch Inception. Lax government supervision of Christopher Nolan, whose credit will hereafter be changed in my book from "writer-director" to "primary vector," has allowed a fresh strain of twisted ideational RNA to burrow into the nervous systems of tens of millions of Americans, when they'd already been infected with that characteristic disorder of our time, Wachowski Syndrome.

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Life During Wartime
Directed by Todd Solondz

Directed by Samuel Maoz

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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A more apt comparison would be between the surviving staff of the satirical magazine and the brave abortion providers who carried on after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

It was, of course, through the authors of The Matrix that the virus became pandemic: the notion that you, hero, should feel free to use the snazziest conceivable arsenal to kill as many people as you like, because they're not real. Those human-shaped objects are just shades of an illusory world to which you owe not the slightest responsibility. In The Matrix, this dreamland was controlled by monsters from outer space, from whom Earth had to be liberated. In Inception, it is not quite controlled by corporate spies, and the liberation (for DiCaprio) requires the snapping of tentacles that are emotional rather than ickily extraterrestrial. And yet, in either case, the activity within the fantasy realm is exclusively a matter of bang! bang! kaboom!

What is the point of having an imagination, I ask you, if the only thing that can be imagined is mayhem, perpetrated without regard for even the appearance of human life? All that cleverness in Inception, with its four parallel lines of narrative that proceed at different but interlocking speeds—like a counterpoint in The Art of Fugue! Like the Carter Double Concerto! No, actually. Like Hans Zimmer's deeply mediocre score, whose leaden motoric thunks betray the sameness of all the Nolan dreamlands. On every level of Inception, they infect us with the identical idea: "Shoot, and never mind what happens to the target."

Our brains seethe with poison worms. Who will cure us?

I nominate Todd Solondz. He does not intend to be therapeutic, God knows (to mention a pervasively absent character in his new film), nor does he deserve to be elevated only at another writer-director's expense. (If I were to get invidious, the proper foil wouldn't be named Nolan, anyway, but Coen.) Yet I was so moved by Solondz's Life During Wartime—knocked back into my seat by his characters' pain and foolishness, then carried halfway into the screen by their innocence, their striving, their desire not just to feel better but to be better—that I, too, have tumbled into a hapless fantasy. Wouldn't the world be wonderful if Inception were the film left to straggle through a two-week run in the art houses, and Life During Wartime got to be the blockbuster?

Moviegoers who are familiar with Solondz's 1998 Happiness will immediately recognize the characters and situations in this new film—though I rush to say that prior knowledge is not necessary, and will serve (for those who have it) mostly to confirm that Solondz, grown middle-aged, is no longer tempted to disfigure his work with a too gleeful cruelty. His three incompatible sisters from Happiness—one housewifely, one timidly artistic, one consumed by her worldly success—have now left New Jersey for sites of forgetting, in Florida's Jewish belt and the hills above Los Angeles: places where you don't see much that looks like it has a past, and the light and color (in Ed Lachman's cinematography) have the suspect sweetness of a gumdrop. The past lurks anyway, returning in the form of schoolyard rumors, wheedling phantoms and a man who was said to be dead and acts like it.

This latter figure is Bill (Ciáran Hinds): once a practicing psychiatrist and paterfamilias and now a slablike ex-convict, whose crime was to have raped a young boy. As he lumbers from the penitentiary toward Florida, unannounced and heavily quiet (he seldom speaks, and the scenes around him are filled with silence), his sister-in-law Joy (Shirley Henderson) is making the same journey south, to take temporary refuge with the remnants of Bill's family. Young Timmy (the freckled and prodigious-eared Dylan Riley Snyder) is preparing for his bar mitzvah, where he will speak of the example set for him by his father. (He's been told that Dad died in combat, defending us from the terrorists.) Bill's former wife, Trish (Allison Janney)—designated as the normal member of Joy's family, and well medicated to maintain that status—is aflutter with the surprise of new love. She has met a divorced man of mature years (Michael Lerner), himself recently arrived in Florida; and though he's thick-bodied, Punchinello-faced and half a head shorter than her, he seems to her a decent man and a real man, whose slightest touch gets her babbling like a brook. As for Joy—piping, frizzy, high-strung and hopelessly misnamed—she would like to start a new life (having fled from her own version of the impossible husband) but is constantly being accosted by the ghosts of the old.

It's the third sister in the family (Ally Sheedy), self-advertised conqueror of LA, who supplies the title for the film, asking if the little people around her (like Joy) don't know there's a war going on. But it's Joy, with her wan but persistent desire to make the world better somehow, who aligns the film's themes, as a magnetized needle will align iron filings. What if a stricken conscience isn't enough to make someone stop doing terrible things? What if people simply can't change what they are—even after they've turned into Joy's ghosts? Yes, there's a war going on, unseen by these characters (though often worried about), and it colors everything; but the real struggles of Life During Wartime are happening within, and they're lost, over and over.

Which isn't to say that Life During Wartime is a grim movie. It's by Solondz; he knows how to make you laugh, if only by reflex, as when you're goosed in the solar plexus. But beneath the deadpan outrageousness there's outrage, and beneath that there's a profound sorrow, which is now more empathic than in any of his past films. You feel it running through all the performances, but most of all in the fierce ones: by Hinds and the remarkable young Snyder and (in a brief but stunning turn that has to be mentioned) Charlotte Rampling. Here, I think, is where a comparison to Inception isn't misguided. Nolan is the kind of filmmaker who figures out his framing and editing and then lets the actors use what time and space he's allotted them; but Solondz starts from the pace and tone he sets with the actors and builds the framing and editing around that.

This used to be called humanistic filmmaking—though given Solondz's views on what humans are, that might not sound very appealing. So let's name this method the Chase: the real chase, not the one that the Nolans cut to. Let's hear it for that damned pursuit of Happiness.

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