I saw the new Todd Solondz movie, Life During Wartime, almost a week ago, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it. The film follows Trish (Allison Janney), one of three beleaguered sisters that we first met in Solondz’s ultra-dark 1998 comedy Happiness, as she tries to move on a decade after her husband was thrown in prison for child molestation. Trish is preparing for her son Timmy’s bar mitzvah when hell breaks loose again: Timmy finds out that his dad is not dead, as he’s been told, but in jail; this revelation threatens the romance Trish has struck up with a plump nebbish named Harvey Weiner (who hails from Welcome to the Dollhouse, a different branch of Solondz’s Yoknapatawpha County). As other members of the family wander dazed through a plasticine Florida retirement community, Timmy must parse the moral differences between pedophilia and terrorism (a classmate told him they were more or less the same) and write his bar mitzvah speech—the subject of which, of course, is forgiveness.
Life During Wartime is as full of Jewish signifiers as any film I have ever seen. Superficially, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man—bar mitzvah rehearsals in the foreground, cantorial music in the background, and, overhead, the thunder of a seriously twisted God of the Old Testament. But, while A Serious Man is a profound meditation on suffering that references Jewish philosophy from the Bible to Kafka, the Jewishness of Life During Wartime is just kind of … there. At its best, it provides the basis for cutting social satire of the provincial Jewish middle class. (Here’s Trish and Harvey on their first date: “Harvey?” “Yes?” “Have you ever been to Israel?” “No. But it’s where I want to be buried.” “Me too.”) But for a film centered around a Jewish family struggling with the concept of forgiveness, it seems there ought to be some kind of animating Jewish idea beneath the surface. Solondz—a one-time yeshiva student—seems to think so, too. “If you grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust, it’s not hard to see those limits of what one can accept, forgive, and so forth,” he told the Forward in a recent interview.
But in Life During Wartime, he frames this question of limits—through the earnest Timmy—in cringingly literal terms. Can you forgive a pedophile? If you forgive a pedophile, can you forgive a terrorist? If you can forgive a terrorist, can you forgive a terrorist who blew up your own office building on 9/11? There is something Talmudic about this attempt to outwit suffering through the creation of neat moral categories, but at a level of parody that seems almost too obvious, like calling your sad movie Happiness or opening the scene of a failed romance with the notes of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” We’ve known at least since Philip Roth left Newark that a thicket of mazel tovs and chai necklaces (Trish wears one) can’t save messed-up suburban Jews from themselves, and instead only throws their foibles into relief. After all these years, I’m still waiting for Solondz to make another masterpiece like Welcome to the Dollhouse, which shows the anatomy of cruelty and suffering in clinical detail rather than commenting on them from an ironic distance.