Todd Solondz has described his Life during Wartime as a “quasi-sequel” to Happiness. This is helpful inasmuch as it has been a dozen years since the quasi-predecessor, and although I think of that one as his best film I am sure I am not alone in experiencing no urge to see it again in the interval. Helpful, too, inasmuch as the moviegoer’s memory receives no help whatsoever from the recasting of the principal roles with different players: Ciarán Hinds, Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, and Ally Sheedy for Dylan Baker, Cynthia Stevenson, Jane Adams, and Lara Flynn Boyle. Naturally enough, the pubescent boy of before is now a college boy, Chris Marquette, and assuming his place on the brink of bar mitzvah is a little brother with a bowl haircut, Dylan Riley Snyder. (Charlotte Rampling, formidable as a truculent man-trap in a hotel bar, has no previous equivalent.) The character of the middle-class suburban pedophile, even without a prompt from the filmmaker, would assuredly have rung a faint bell, as would those of the three weird sisters — weird in the colloquial sense, not the Shakespearean — but if ever a sequel could be said to stand on its own without necessity of seeing the predecessor, this would be it. I think of it now as Solondz’s second-best film.
We may not know quite where we are in the opening scene, apart from a plush restaurant booth, where the black half of an interracial couple (Michael Kenneth Williams, unhelpfully in for Philip Seymour Hoffman), unable to ignore the tears streaming down the face of the white half, first tries polite distraction (“They have a lot of vegetarian options here”), then tries contrite confrontation (“No more getting into fights with strangers, waking up in the gutter”), only to have his efforts sabotaged when the waitress without warning spits in his face. The emotional tone and temperature of a scene always trump the factual content. We know as much as we need to know. We can feel the rest. Solondz does a painstaking job of feathering nests, comfortably affluent and antiseptically attractive surroundings, and smothering these with a golden patina, thereby locating the source of all troubles exclusively inside the people. External factors, even the ongoing war in the title, afford no excuses. Nowhere is this more glaringly apparent than in the swank Tinsel Town mansion of the Emmy-winning scriptwriter and erstwhile poet — “I was feeling crushed by the enormity of my success” — though it is, with less glare, everywhere apparent. Another example: the motel where the paroled pedophile takes temporary shelter looks like a triple-diamond establishment in a AAA tour book, but the unidentified thread or hair on the bed impels the squeamish occupant to spread towels on the mattress before reclining. Whatever icky thing lies on the bed can’t be as icky as what lies within.
The themes of happiness and normality, or the illusions thereof, from the earlier film are compounded here, after everything that happened there, by themes of guilt and forgiveness, but Solondz mercilessly exposes the meaninglessness of language (can the wartime buzzword “terrorist” be extended to cover a pedophile?), and the nearest approximation his characters can come to happiness or forgiveness or what-you-will is to pretend. Those are no small accomplishments for a filmmaker: to pinpoint the source of human discontent, to gauge the emptiness of words, to rip the mask off self-knowledge. And not simply to proclaim these, but to portray them in lucid, vivid, striking images. At times, even so, he seems to be doing things just for effect — the fantasy scenes with a suicided Paul Reubens, for a blatant instance — as if he feels he can ill afford to allow too much time in between quirks and kinks, just as the sitcom writer cannot allow too long a lag between punch lines. In this, Solondz betrays an innate inclination to conventionalize the unconventional. Yet he, among a throng of competitors in the “indie” field, remains an above-average quirk trafficker, more discriminating than most, and both the bleakness and the humor of his vision are well earned. They do not, that is to say, come cheap.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is more accurately Scott Pilgrim vs. Seven Evil Exes, six guys and one girl whom he must in some sense “defeat” in order to win the hand of the pink-haired, then blue-haired, then green-haired girl of his dreams. (Literally she first appeared to him, on skates, in a dream.) The serial conflicts, supernatural martial-arts contests punctuated with spelled-out sound effects in the style of the old Batman television show (“WHUMP!”), are so deep into fantasy that even a shoulderless wimp such as Michael Cera can compete, untrained, on equal footing. So deep indeed that we lose touch with the metaphor. In what sense, and why, must he best these out-of-the-picture rivals? The ironic facial expression of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, her raised-eyebrow skepticism, is very fetching even if not very revealing. Still, the singular triumph of this hard-trying movie is that Cera manages to hang onto his humanity, his Canadian modesty, his individualistic deft touch, his sidelong delivery of lines, amid all the brassy pop-culture self-consciousness, the comic-bookishness and video-gamesmanship, the distancing devices (superimposed title on a new setting: “Fun fact: This place is a toilet”), and the sophomoric cleverness of British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). Wright’s best gambits, which have the practical purpose of speeding the action along in addition to the purely ornamental purpose of showing off, are the dreamlike scene changes in mid-dialogue.
Get Low, the feature debut of director Aaron Schneider, starts like a house afire, meaning it starts literally with a house on fire, and proceeds from there to shave off a thin slice of folksy baloney purportedly based on fact, something to do with a misanthropic old Tennessee hermit who throws himself a “funeral party” before his demise. Robert Duvall runs through his familiar repertoire at an uncommonly slow speed en route to an embarrassing Capra-esque climax of public confession. Bill Murray as the needy, greedy funeral director is still Bill Murray. And Sissy Spacek as a former flame of the protagonist brings to her every scene her special gift of being completely (as the Buddhists have it) present in the moment. One of America’s shamefully neglected natural resources.