Ten years ago, the jaundiced writer/director Todd Solondz created a film called Happiness, in which nobody was happy. I had serious issues with the movie. Even though I greatly admired the writing and thought the acting was superb with inspired casting (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Jon Lovitz…Jon Lovitz? Yup, that was him), it was about a group of people that Solondz seemed to be criticizing for their cruelty and viciousness toward each other, both on purpose and through sheer ignorance at how they were coming across in their interactions. The issue I had is that Solondz himself treated the characters with the same cruelty and viciousness they showed each other and the hypocrisy ultimately weakened the movie for me.
Solondz has now come out with a new movie, Life During Wartime. It has what is called a gimmick for its plot. It takes all the characters of Happiness and meets up with them ten years later. It has a second gimmick. None of the characters are played by the same actors that played them in the original film. This sounds like genius, genius, I tells ya. But for me, it didn’t quite do it. In fact, I really felt that everything that the first one had going for it was missing from this semi-sequel. What first struck me was the uninspired casting. Though all the actors got the job done more or less, only two really rose to the heights of the original cast: Paul Reubens in the Jon Lovitz part (the Lovitz character killed himself in the first movie, so Reubens is basically a ghost, or a projection on the part of the character of Joy, played by the fragile voiced actress Shirley Henderson, who can’t seem to resolve the various issues in her life) and Ally Sheedy in the Lara Flynn Boyle role (and who is so good, one wishes she would have had the role in the original as Boyle was the weakest performance in the movie). While the actresses who played the sisters in the original seemed like siblings, that they actually could come from the same parents, here they look like they could only be sisters through adoption (or to paraphrase Pauline Kael, they seem to have only recently become a family). Other characters, like Ciaran Hinds, the child molester, don’t even seem to be the same character, but a whole new creation on Solondz’s part. In addition, whatever one might have thought about the original, the over the top plotting (child molesting; murder and dismemberment; dirty phone calls; suicide; one’s first jism) really kept one riveted. Here, nothing that much seems to be going on. Because of this, what seemed to be a brilliant and highly original idea, just seems more a puzzlement. The major question now becomes not why people are acting the way they are in Solondz’s universe, but why Solondz wanted to visit this universe again.
Winter’s Bone is also about a family that isn’t very nice to each other. But they aren’t nice about not being nice like in Happiness, where the characters throw out backhanded compliments and barely veiled insults, delivering them through smiling mouths and condescending gazes. In Winter’s Bone, the families actually go the distance and kill each other if the situation calls for it. Well, it’s not the way my family would handle it, but who are we to judge, really? And from the perspective of these people, the death of the central character’s father in this stark and unyielding movie (the title seems a very apt description) was called for. Winter’s Bone revolves around Ree Dolly, a teenager not quite old enough to join the army without her parents’ permission, and who is responsible for her two younger siblings and a mother who is barely functional emotionally. Her father was arrested for dealing meth (the main crop in the area where economic decay seems to have left locals with few choices), but then went missing when he was released on bond. Now, if he doesn’t show up for the hearing, the bond is forfeited and his house and land go up for sale to pay the debt, leaving Ree and her family homeless. My friend Jim, who went with me, observed that if this had been a typical Hollywood studio film, the main character’s goal would have been to find out who killed her father. I think he may be right. But here Ree doesn’t care who killed her father, partly because she knows that trying to find that out could lead to her death; but more importantly, she knows that her father deserved what he got. He broke the code of the locals by turning state’s evidence and that is just something one doesn’t do in this backwoods area. Winter’s Bone is a fine movie, the sort of movie that keeps me going to the theater. The script (by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik) and directing (by Granik) are as taught and stark as the environment. The acting is first rate with Dale Dickey as Merab, the powerful wife of the head of the family who killed Ree’s father, and John Hawkes as a relative who looks like he’s wasting away from his drug addiction, taking the highest honors. Both have faces that look like the harsh winter background that surrounds them. You’d certainly never be able to recognize any of the actors by their head shots. Jennifer Lawrence as Ree carries the movie ably on her back. Dickey is the one with not just the best line, but the line that might summarize the whole culture Ree grew up in: when Dickey takes Ree to find her father, they go to a lake where his corpse has been submerged. They are there to cut off his hand so Ree can prove he’s dead (which means he didn’t skip bond and it is no longer forfeited), so Ree has to lift her father’s arm out of the lake. When Ree drops the body back into the water after the amputation, Dickey asks her why Ree did that; they have to take both hands or the authorities will think the person only cut off one of his hands so he wouldn’t have to go to jail; it’s a trick the authorities have caught on to (how many times did it take for this happened until the authorities realized they were being fooled).
The family in The Kids Are All Right aren’t very nice to each other either. But their sniping and bickering rises out of their being a family for so long. It’s not that they dislike each other, it’s more that they’ve lived together for so long, they’ve forgotten how to be nice to each other (that and many writers consider families that don’t snipe to be inherently uninteresting). The Kids Are All Right starts out as a variation on Boudu Saved From Drowning, the classic Jean Renoir movie from 1932 in which a homeless person, Boudu, is brought home by the head of a bourgeois family and moves him in after which Boudu proceeds to seduce everybody and destroy their middle class assumptions. In The Kids Are All Right, Boudu is Paul, played by Mark Ruffolo, an organic farmer/restaurant owner who always looks like he’s shaking something out of his hair like dirt being shaken off the roots of the vegetables he’s raising. He enters a household headed by Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and proceeds to seduce everyone. He convinces the son Laser (Josh Hutchinson) to drop a friend that’s leading down a wayward path; he convinces the daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) that it’s time for her to become more of an adult and wean herself away from her controlling parents; and he convinces Jules that she has talents and self worth in her own right and doesn’t need to exist only in the shadow of her spouse. The only one he has trouble seducing is Nic, but he gets her, too, eventually; though he gets her just as she realizes that he is a seducer, and his house of cards falls down. Now the movie begins to resemble Martin Scorcese’s version of Cape Fear in which De Niro tried to destroy Nick Nolte’s family, but in so doing, made them realize that there was something wrong at the core of their relationship and brought them closer together than they had been in some time. Here, Paul seduces and in so doing first destroys the family, but in doing so makes them realize that something has been wrong with the way things were for some time, and ironically they emerge stronger than they were before. Though The Kids Are All Right is intelligent and entertaining, there is also something about it that doesn’t quite work and that may be the character of Paul. It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about him at times and this ambiguity may be what’s throwing the whole thing off balance a bit. The key scene here is when Paul tells Jules that he loves her. This, to be ruthlessly honest, is not one iota convincing or believable mainly because his relationship with Jules is no different than any of his other relationships with women. Actually, from my perspective, Paul is almost as sociopathic as De Niro’s character in Cape Fear. He has sex with Jules, but while Jules has some sort of excuse (she is not getting the attention from Nic she needs and she is desperate for someone to tell her that she is worth something, anything), Paul has no such excuse. He seduces Jules for the same reason he seduces every other woman; he wants another notch on his bedpost (and his smirky, sly smile suggests that Jules being a lesbian is just icing on the cake). To prove just how evil he is, just look at the scene he has with Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), his fuck buddy, a woman who has clearly hinted (so clearly it was like hinting him over the head with a dirt clod from his garden) that she wanted to have a deeper relationship and even start a family; but when she asks if she can come over, he heartlessly accuses her of not wanting what he suddenly, out of nowhere, wants: a family. It’s cruel and heartless and shows someone who desperately needs to find a soul. But the question is, did the authors (Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed) do this on purpose; and if they did, to what purpose? It actually reads a bit like the character of Paul sort of got away from them and they weren’t sure exactly what function they wanted him to serve. At the same time, The Kids Are All Right. is very enjoyable and a real crowd pleaser with an independent film veneer. It’s the Little Miss Sunshine of the year, one of these films that tries to convince people it’s being daring with its subject matter as well as a challenge to its audience. It isn’t and it isn’t, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so popular. It makes people think it’s something that it’s not; it has its cake and eats it to.