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by Eric Kohn
July 20, 2010 1:14 AM
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Welcome To The Solondzverse: Examining Todd Solondz, the King of Feel-Bad Cinema

A scene from Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime."

If Werner Herzog directed "American Beauty," the resulting product might look something like any given Todd Solondz movie. With his continuing riffs on middle class discontent, the writer-director has built a unified world to sustain his entire output. The Solondzverse is no joke -- or is it all just one grand punchline?

Solondz's 1985 student short film, "Schatt's Last Shot," provides an ideal entry point to his unflinching universe of dark comic despair. A young Solondz stars in the ten minute short as geeky high schooler Ezra Schatt, a neurotic, primitive headcase of the young Woody Allen variety. Buried under thick, unseemly glasses and an endlessly dazed expression, Ezra's worst enemy is basketball. Unable to make a single basket under the brutal pressures of his vulgar gym teacher ("You're shit, Schatt!"), Ezra also fails at both impressing the cheerleader of his dreams and realizing his aspirations of attending MIT.

At home in his bathroom, Ezra briefly contemplates slitting his wrists. "Dear mom and dad," his crude suicide note reads, "I can't function anymore." But his mother calls him to dinner, putting the plan on hold. In the climactic scene, Ezra experiences a burst of inspiration that leads him to challenge his gym teacher at a high-stakes game of one-on-one -- which the teen promptly loses.

An end title explains that while the gym teacher and the cheerleader enjoyed a blissful marriage together, Ezra received an F in gym, "endured an unhappy life and found misery and terror at every moment." Not even death spared this prototypical Solondz character from endless persecution. "When he suddenly died and arrived at the Gates of Heaven, he found God," we're told. The final command heard on the soundtrack -- "Shoot!" -- represents the Lord's command that Ezra make the basket he's eternally fated to miss.

Twenty-five years and six features later, the seeds of gloom first planted in "Schatt's Last Shot" have expanded into a dour garden of cosmic pessimism. The reigning king of feel-bad cinema, Solondz exemplifies the fine art of the cringe comedy better than any other American filmmaker. He has no need for sympathy, having crafted an ambiguous blend of satire and tragedy that rejects any conventional notion of redemption. Principally attacking the legend of middle class suburban comfort, Solondz's mischievous outlook bleeds from one movie to another, turning his filmography into a string of sequels equally rooted in the perpetually harsh Solondzverse.

For that reason, it seems completely appropriate that his latest feature, "Life During Wartime," takes the form of a literal sequel. Returning to his famously controversial study of pedophilia, masturbation and murder in 1998's "Happiness," Solondz updates the plights of the Jordan sisters a decade later. In doing so, he replaces the characters with new actors, a strategy that recalls 2004's "Palindromes," where an alienated girl took the form of ten wildly different people.

Here, the disgraced former shrink Bill (played by Dylan Baker in "Happiness," he has morphed into Ciaran Hinds) completes jail time for his pedophilia and solemnly dreams of rekindling family bonds. His unreasonably sunny ex-wife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson before, now Allison Janney) confronts her children about their father's past while attempting to move on with a relationship to the affluent middle-aged Zionist Harvey (Michael Lerner), whose own sexual proclivities get scrutinized by Trish's now-skeptical son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) on the brink of his bar mitzvah.

A scene from "Happiness."

Trish's beleaguered sister Joy (Jane Adams before, now Shirley Henderson), splits from her troubled husband Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman before, now Michael Kenneth Williams), a profoundly disturbed fellow still suffering from the perverted prank call tendencies that afflicted him in "Happiness." Alone again, she's haunted by the ghost of suicidal former flame Andy (played by a whiny Jon Lovitz in "Happiness," he's now even whinier as Paul Reubens). Nobody has made anything remotely close to progress.

In "Wartime," the meta approach to casting reflects the passage of time, a debilitating force that reaches its full destructive potential. The new actors create a ghostly aura in light of their earlier incarnations, as if the original characters devolved into shells of their former selves. With time, the deviance of the Solondzverse has grown quieter, subtler and less overtly shocking. Solondz's chief concern in this outing lies with the prospects of forgiveness, as various "Happiness" stars consider their sins.

While dominated by a crawling pace and suggestive dialogue rather than continually subversive overstatement, "Wartime" lurks in the shadows of the earlier work's extreme morbidity. It appears as though Solondz decided to mop up the messes of the past by simply whispering the inevitably sad outcome of the future. Like Ezra Schatt, everyone in "Wartime" is doomed to keep missing their targets.

As Solondz repeats the same moods and grave fates for his characters indefinitely, the Solondzverse serves as an expression of his worldview. From an early point, he embraced bleak inevitability. His 1986 short film "How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City's East Village Cultural Landscape" once again starred the director, now attempting to shed his "nerd" status by beefing up his wardrobe and moving to Alphabet City -- where he's met with further affirmations of his loser status.

In this case and every other throughout his oeuvre, Solondz understands the difficulties of social outcasts (hence his decisions to play them) without neglecting the innate humor that drives their universal persecution. No surprise, then, that executives at Fox reportedly offered the 1980s-era Solondz a shot at directing "Revenge of the Nerds II," an offer he promptly rejected. The Solondzverse is too rough for mainstream comedy: The nerds get the spotlight, but never get revenge.

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A scene from "Welcome To The Dollhouse."

Solondz churns melodrama into ferociously cold affairs. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" was a major turning point for his filmmaking craftsmanship but the natural result, hitting theaters in 1995, of a decade-long evolution. The routinely flat attempts by middle school pariah Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) to attract high school hunk Steve Rogers (Eric Mabius) ditches any kind of precious youth portraiture and lingers in Dawn's vanity. Suggesting "Freaks and Geeks" with teeth, "Dollhouse" views adolescence as a world of constant dread.

Solondz's tone is easy to recognize but hard to define without certain key terms. Critics have often pointed out that the title of his his first feature, 1989's barely-seen "Fear, Anxiety & Depression," outlines the aims of the later, more pointedly morose movies. That observation also applies to the reviled play written by the movie's nebbishy lead (Solondz, in his last starring role), aptly called "Despair," a regular quality in every movie Solondz has made.

But that's not the only sensation that Solondz knows so well. In "The Rough Guide to American Independent Film," Jessica Winter describes "Dollhouse" as a "uniquely subjective viewing experience...audiences may interpret it as an expressionist horror film, a scrupulously accurate representation of the social acid bath that is junior high school, or both." Indeed, the subjective gaze exists in every dreary corner of Solondzverse. If the brutality feels familiar, he's a realist; if it feels over the top, he's a bard of cruelty.

Like many viewers, I often find myself conflicted over the lack of credibility in Solondz's screenplays, but moments of exaggeration tend to grow effective in retrospect. When Trish comes home from a date with Harvey and blithely gushes to her young son that her new boyfriend made her "wet," it makes for an unlikely slip, but her desire to find love anew registers in Janney's tender performance. One-liners can intentionally offset the mood, as when Joy confronts Allen about whether he still indulges his prank call fetish. "Only on Sundays," he sobs. Even when Solondz figures talk like caricatures, the situations are hardly as zany as the reactions to them. In this dissonance lies the Solondz touch.

Typically set against the blandness of New Jersey suburbs (perhaps down the road from Kevin Smith's similarly raunchy View Askewniverse), the Solonzverse revolves around homegrown values put to the test. Solondz knowingly condescends to exceptionalism by overstating it. As a crass football player exclaims in 2001's "Storytelling," "Jersey's where America's at!" By finding chaos in suburbia, Solondz rages against the ugliest stereotypes of the west.

A scene from "Storytelling."

Although many find the Solondzverse too superficially unpleasant for the expression of legitimate commentary, the cult appeal of his vision persists. At a recent screening and debate on the merits of "Happiness" at Columbia College in Chicago, "Groundhog Day" director Harold Ramis defended the movie's "righteous indignation," going so far as to compare Solondz's grim picture of the world to no less than Voltaire's "Candide."

The value of his style, of course, does nothing for mollifying the experience of sitting through it time and again. No one, however, can accuse Solondz of ignorance to the dismal nature of his work. "Stop going around trying to impose your misery on others," complains John Goodman in "Storytelling," berating a disillusioned teenage son whose name might as well be Ezra Schatt 2.0.

But misery is the piece de resistance of the Solondzverse, and the director knows it well. Even "Palindromes," perhaps his weakest effort because most of the jokes fall flat, manages to reinforce the rules of the Solondzverse by opening with the news of "Dollhouse" anti-hero Dawn's suicide. Her death completes a downhill journey that began ten years before. Updating the canon, Solondz proves that under his watch, no single cut to black guarantees anyone's safety.

The Solondzverse has always been afflicted with paranoia, so it follows that his two post-9/11 movies, "Palindromes" and "Life During Wartime," contain references to a climate steeped in fear. A pivotal scene in "Palindromes" evokes the Twin Towers (as the wandering protagonist, Aviva, lies that her parents died in the attack), but "Life During Wartime" toys around with the ever-vague modern terrorist threat. Shifting the setting to Florida gives Solondz the opportunity to mock the cheery facade. "If I were Al-Qaida, this part of Florida would be a goldmine," a character quips.

Appropriately enough, critics are often compelled to avoid the comedy of the Solondzverse and focus on its scarier ingredients. Scholar Adam P. Wadenius recently positioned "Happiness" as a horror film, with Bill's prepubescent son Billy (Rufus Read) embodying "the monstrous masculine." With "Life During Wartime," however, Solondz pities his irrevocably flawed subject in a fashion that strongly implies a bittersweet perspective. "People can't help it if they're monsters," sighs Bill, ostensibly referring to himself. When Trish discusses his pedophilia with her son, she strikes a shockingly optimistic note. "Your father may have been a pedophile," she says, "but he was also a man."

For its internal mythology alone, the appeal of "Life During Wartime" belongs almost exclusively to Solondz junkies. Fair enough: The Solondzverse has developed a foundation that can support an inside job. Nevertheless, the concept of forgiveness coursing through the movie is entirely new to this mopey setting, and it creates a much warmer and almost life-affirming undertone that expands Solondz's range. The characters bring clarity to their desires and make peace with unhappy endings. Solondz may not have softened with age, but his creations have undoubtedly grown wiser because of it.

Check out Anthony Kaufman's interview with Todd Solondz for indieWIRE last week here

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