Punch-Line, Kick in the Groin…or Both!
Published on July 26th, 2010 | by Carlos J. Segura0
A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life. -William Arthur Ward
Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end. -Sid Caesar
Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious. -Peter Ustinov
Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven. -Mark Twain
Humor is merely tragedy standing on its head with its pants torn. -Irvin S. Cobb
Though all of these quotes do get at the same idea, that the funny and the serious go hand in hand, there are three quotes that are best suited to Todd Solondz’ “Life During Wartime.” The first half of Agnes Repplier’s quote, which is, “Humor brings insight and tolerance…”. Followed by Mr. Ward’s quote: “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.”
Kudos to these characters, this family, that can walk this so-called tightrope that involves someone (Joy played by Shirley Henderson) facing imagined (or real?) ghosts, a mother (Trish played by Allison Janney) raising two children while dealing with a past that threatens to disrupt the present (made a little easier thanks to the magic of klonopin and Judaism), and her former husband (Ciarán Hinds) stuck with a tragic present, past and future because he’s just been released from prison for drugging and raping young boys.
These are the people that populate the garish-looking world of Solondz’ tragicomedy, a sequel to his even better “Happiness,” set in South Florida which, refreshingly, looks less like paradise and more like someone urinated on the film stock with its ugly, yellow-green color palette. The camera doesn’t do the actors many favors either. All look minimally made-up, at best, or like hell.
A heap of applause should be directed at the actors for their lack of vanity and their sharp and timely comedic skills. Most of the scenes, composed of often static and stately shots, play like candid sketch comedy where you never know if you’ll end up with a punch-line or a moment of truth like a kick in the groin or both.
Sample of the humor: there is a moment when Trish (Allison Janney) tells her little girl to help herself to one of her many prescription drugs. The behavior is so shocking and irresponsible and yet it’s so outrageous. One of the great things about seeing something from a safe distance in a comedy such as this is that you are free to laugh at it knowing that at the end of it all the lights will go up eventually and you will get to go home free of any nasty taste in your mouth. Well, this isn’t quite that film.
The plot is simple, minimal (this is a character show), so much so that near the end you wonder how all the scenes will come together and once it’s all done you realize that it all doesn’t gel, plot-wise, which leaves one less satisfied than one could have been. What keeps this from being a serious flaw is that all the scenes have a uniform tone and are performed so well. Shirley Henderson’s scenes, though often a bitter pleasure to watch (she is a stand-out for sure), feel like they are part of another movie because except for the familial connection to the other characters they’re not at all connected to the big, cathartic moment but they’re so good that all is mostly forgiven. Even Allison Janney’s scenes feel a bit disconnected despite her character’s stronger connection to the main focus/character of the movie, which is the pedophile father.
This is, save for the best and funniest scene featuring a deadpan, angry-looking Charlotte Rampling, the one character in the film whose situation is the only one without much humor. Todd Solondz said (paraphrasing here) in a Q and A that the pedophilic father is in the movie because he wanted a metaphor for what is most loathed by people. Perhaps all of the other scenes are best appreciated as a way of getting the audience through this one narrative thread, the main one, with laughs because taken in without any sense of humor the idea of a humanized pedophile might perhaps be too difficult for the average audience member. The humor here humanizes the characters, clears the palette, gets one safely to the moment of catharsis. Not too safely though. There are still plenty of dysfunctional people for you to alternately judge, laugh at, and empathize with along the way. This is a Todd Solondz movie after all.