Directors don’t normally travel with theme music, but as Todd Solondz walks in the door, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” comes over the house stereo. It’s a fitting bit of serendipity, given that Solondz’s films are rich in explorations of the dark side of human nature. Or, as his critics would have it, he’s a misanthrope, creating miserable, pathetic characters and then driving them further into the depths of despair.
“Americans are so in love with redemption,” he says a bit later, toying with a forkful of pasta. “So many politicians or celebrities, they get drunk, do drugs, have prostitutes, then they say, ‘I’m sorry,’ they go on Leno or another forum and they apologize, they find God, and then they do it again. It’s cyclical, but the public plays along. It’s a kind of myth, a paradigm that Americans love. I think my trajectories are not redemptive so much as they are tragic.”
Solondz had his breakthrough in 1995 with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a dark comedy about a junior high outcast. But even “Dollhouse’s” most unsettling moments, such as the scene in which a teenage boy offers to rape a classmate without knowing what the word means, could not have prepared audiences for what came next.
In retrospect, 1998’s “Happiness” was the first film of Solondz’s mature style: bracing, confrontational and utterly unredemptive. Among its dramatis personae are a suburban father of two (Dylan Baker) who drugs and rapes one of his son’s friends during a sleepover and an obscene phone caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose violent fantasies find a willing recipient in his next-door neighbor.
These are not pleasant characters in whose company to pass a couple of hours, nor hope to meet again. So there’s something perverse — and thus, perfectly characteristic of Solondz — that more than a decade after “Happiness” polarized art-house audiences, he picks up where he left off with “Life During Wartime,” which he calls a “quasi-sequel.” The movie opens in select theaters Friday.
Building on the central gambit of his 2004 feature “Palindromes,” in which the leading role was played by eight widely disparate actors, Solondz recast every part for the new movie. After serving his prison sentence, Baker’s blank-faced pedophile has morphed into dark, stern Ciarán Hinds. The three sisters of the first film — perpetual sad-sack Joy, blithe homemaker Trish and self-involved author Helen — are played by Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy. (The roles were originated by Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson and Lara Flynn Boyle.)
Solondz opens “Life During Wartime” with an emphatic callback to the first film. Here again are Joy and a man seated at an isolated restaurant banquette in the midst of an excruciatingly awkward breakup. Again, he presents her with a pewter ashtray with her name engraved on the side. And again, once she lowers the boom, the conversation rapidly turns angry and recriminatory. No wonder Joy cops to a feeling of déjà vu.
The repetition, however, is not exact. Joy’s soon-to-be-dumped dinner companion is not Jon Lovitz’s character from “Happiness,” which makes sense, since he killed himself midway through the first movie. (He does turn up later, as a vengeful ghost played by Paul Rubens.) The man, her husband, is the first movie’s perverse prank-caller, although it takes a while to recognize that Hoffman’s doughy lump has been transmogrified into Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as “The Wire’s” fearsome Omar.
“I wanted to play fast and loose,” says Solondz, explaining his desire to expand on the first movie without being constrained by it. “I didn’t want to have to be so literal. Obviously, the most brazen violation is the first one you see. I didn’t want an actor who would in any way evoke Philip Hoffman.”
He laughs, a nasal chuckle. “I think I succeeded there.”
Where the brightly lighted, flattened-out compositions of “Happiness” reflected the television Solondz grew up watching, “Life During Wartime” embraces a richer palate, its images captured by cinematographer Edward Lachman in high-definition video. But TV still remains a touchstone for Solondz, especially its evocation of a suburban idyll that his movies both embody and ferociously undermine. Part of the reason he set “Wartime” in Florida, Solondz says, is that it “out-suburbs the suburbs. It’s a kind of Generica.”
Solondz’s landscapes are peopled with avatars of middle-class America. Trish’s son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), a freckle-faced redhead rapidly approaching his bar mitzvah, seems as if he’s stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
“He’s such an anachronism, this boy,” Solondz says. “There’s nothing of the contemporary, TV-addicted, bratty kid about this boy. He really has a quality of innocence about him. Just like on ‘Lassie.’ That’s what I thought of. Or ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”
Of course, the Beaver never quizzed a prospective stepfather on his feelings about pedophilia and terrorism, but then, these are different times. Although the subject is never addressed directly, echoes of the “war on terror” era reverberate throughout “Life During Wartime.”
“This is a much more politically overt film, a post-9/11 film, than ‘Happiness,’ ” Solondz says. “The biggest thing going on when that movie came out was Monica Lewinsky.”
“Wartime” returns constantly to the subject of forgiveness. The timeworn adage “forgive and forget” acts as an entree into the more profound question of whether it’s possible, or even desirable, to do both. In a poignant exchange, Hinds’ spiritually drained sex offender recounts the enforced amnesia that comes with rehabilitation: “I tried to forget. And I tried to remember. And I couldn’t.”
“People talk about loving mankind or embracing humanity, but those are abstractions,” Solondz says. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re all defined by our limitations. Can we accept? Forgive? That’s what defines us.”
The particular nature of Hinds’ abomination is less of concern for Solondz than its status as the ultimate unforgivable act. “The whole pedophilia thing, as a subject, it’s really of minimal interest to me. As a metaphor, it’s very powerful, of that which is most demonized, feared, loathed.”
One might argue that, post-9/11, the terrorist is as reviled as the pedophile, but Solondz disagrees. “Most Americans would feel much more comfortable having Osama bin Laden at their table than a pedophile.”
Focusing on such volatile subjects isn’t likely to win Solondz a mass audience, but he’s resigned to his marginal status, especially if it means not having to compromise his films. He recently took a job in New York University’s film department, teaching in six-week spurts, which relieves the pressure to make more commercial work.
“Scorsese and Soderbergh are able to do ‘one for them, one for me,’ ” he says. “I can’t do the one for them.”
Even his brief flirtation with directing a sequel to “Charlie’s Angels” had more to do with subversion than selling out. “Mine was an art movie, using these icons that you could never have rights to otherwise. It’s not like that was my bid for trying to be commercial. It was my trying to make uncommercial what was commercial.”
Even with the limited audiences he’s reached, Solondz’s movies don’t always go over as planned, which may be why he’s in no hurry to break through to a wider public.
“When I first screened ‘Happiness’ at Telluride years ago, this college kid came up to me afterwards,” Solondz recalls. “He was a little drunk, and he said, ‘Awesome. I loved the movie. That was great. And when that kid was raped — that was hilarious!’ ”
Solondz winces before going on to say, “What do you do? I knew that I was in trouble. I knew I was playing with fire. There’s not much I can do about it without sapping the film of its life force.”