Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider; Life During Wartime, directed by Todd Solondz
Get Low and Life During Wartime are films about forgiving and forgetting—or, rather, about the inability to forgive, and the struggle to forget instead. In director Aaron Schneider's schmaltzy Get Low, which uses its score like sitcoms use canned laughter-and-awwws, Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hoary, hirsute hermit who plans to throw himself a living funeral party; Bill Murray is the droll funeral director tasked with making it happen. The party is supposed to give the townsfolk a chance to share the rural legends they've heard about the old loner. But really, he intends for it to serve as public, pre-deathbed confessional.
Bush can't forgive himself, and has so much self-loathing he couldn't ask for it from others: his isolated cabin serves as self-imposed prison, where he has spent 40 years as warden and sole prisoner, punishing himself for wrongs he committed as a young man. The whole tiresome film, based on a true story, builds to the big revelation: what did he do? Essentially, something that might have been selfish, possibly cowardly. (But most certainly hackneyed.) It's a petty finish: I'd say the film fizzles out, but that would suggest it ever had pop. If anything, Get Low suggests an elder generation that sees itself as a lot wiser, funnier, and altogether more important than it actually is.
In comparison, witer-director Todd Solondz's queasy, drily comical, and morally hefty Life During Wartime might be the most important movie of the year—at least the most engaging. It speaks not just for a generation but for an entire country. And because the sins in it are far more substantial than those in Get Low, their unpardonableness is all the more destructive.
The film is a follow-up to Solondz's Happiness, which capped the 90s by exploring the pernicious perversity that propped up Clinton-era prosperity. Wartime rounds off the aughts, which Solondz presents as a distorted mirror-version of its predecessor. Accordingly, these two films, and their opening scenes, are very much the same, but different. Like, the characters are the same, but played by different actors. The setting has moved from suburban New Jersey to sunny Florida.
But you can't outrun your problems: Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, now played by African-American Michael Kenneth Williams, still sexually harasses by telephone; Dylan Baker's pedophilic father, now played by Ciaran Hinds, is not "dead" (as his ex-wife Trish, now Allison Janney, tells people), but newly released from prison; Jon Lovitz's irascible sadsack, now played by Paul Reubens, reappears as a ghost, doing literally what the other male characters do to their female counterparts only figuratively: he haunts.
Rather than deal with their spectral sins, rather than learn to forgive, the characters try to run away and forget. (Some take deadening psychotropics.) "The past is the past. Gone. Dead. Forgotten," Trish says. "We live in Florida now." Characters fret instead about China, about terrorism, about the feelings of baby carrots. But, as one character points out, "the enemy's within". The external enemies are a diversion, easier to worry about than our own real problems. It's not the terrorists who pose our greatest threat. It's us, Solondz suggests—everybody in this unforgiving, war-crazy country.
Life During Wartime opens july 23 at IFC center; Get Low opens july 30