Somewhat Happily Ever After

Photo: Peter Hapak

On a recent muggy afternoon, Todd Solondz, who doesn’t seem to be made for this weather, or maybe any kind of weather, arrives under a floppy sun hat. Pale and slight, with a nerdy courtliness, he’s wearing prescription sunglasses—his trademark green Buddy Holly glasses tucked in his pocket—and yellow Converse sneakers. Solondz, 50, lives in the Village, in a one-bedroom apartment that is convenient to NYU, where he started teaching full-time a year ago. It’s also near Washington Square Park, where he takes his 17-month-old son, Elroy, for walks: Yes, Solondz—the filmmaker so determined to find the most “ostracized, most feared, most hated, reviled, and so forth” characters he could find, who wrote and directed a movie called Happiness that centered in part on the erotic quandaries of a pedophile dad—is a doting father.

And, predictably, an anxious one. “I’m hardly a role model for anybody trying to have a film career,” he says. “Could I use a little more income? Yes. But I’m okay right now.” His family is in the city for the summer, which suits him fine, even if his air conditioner doesn’t work so well. “I’m very fortunate in life, because I don’t really take pleasure in going to the beach.” For Solondz, pleasure seems complicated. His self-denial won’t even permit him to take me up on an offer to share some fries—a proposal that seems almost to horrify him. Which wouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen his films, including his latest, Life During Wartime, a follow-up to his symphony of droll disenchantment, Happiness.

Solondz has made his entire career (or “quasi-career,” as he says) out of refusal—it’s at the core of his relationship with himself, with his films’ backers, and, most important, with those who go see his movies. He won’t give viewers what most filmmakers do: characters who are easy to sympathize with or dislike, a moral universe that simplifies the chaos and ambiguity of everyday life into the clarity of entertainment. Nor will he buy into the ideology of “I was a loser, but I came out on top. That’s Hollywood. That’s ’cause everybody wants to feel they’re unappreciated, [but] look, given the opportunity, they can triumph.”

Instead, he makes uncomfortably funny movies about, say, a glum teenager who feels that she’d be happy only if she were pregnant, or a man seeking acceptance by a clan of cheery Christians by agreeing to kill an abortionist. In Happiness, which was set in New Jersey (where Solondz grew up), he depicted the lives of three sisters: manic Trish, who “has it all,” except her husband wants to have sex with her son’s tween friends; Joy, who is bruised, overcautious, and searching; and Helen, a successful poet of grim experience who feels like a faker. (“If only she’d been raped as a child,” Solondz says. “That was her tragedy, yes.”) Meanwhile, in Florida, their father is leaving their mother in part because he’s daunted by the years of healthy retirement stretching before him, and wants to be alone.

Life During Wartime is set mostly in Florida with an all-new cast. “The first scene of this movie, it’s shot exactly as if you’re watching Happiness again,” Solondz says. “So the audience feels a little confident, like, I know what he’s doing. But then I can subvert it and take it someplace else.”

Fifteen years ago, Solondz was the suburban auteur of bleakness that the then-ascendant indie culture needed. His rigorously untranscendent coming-of-age story, Welcome to the Dollhouse, won accolades at Sundance in 1996, and everyone wanted something from him. But he wasn’t seduced: He’s apparently not all that seduceable. “After Welcome to the Dollhouse, every door was open to me. But because I had [spent] most of my life feeling a failure, I was very discomfited at the same time that I was so moved by the success. So I wrote Happiness. I knew I had the liberty, and you always have to write with liberty, and I knew that it would close every door. It was almost a test: Can you still want to work with me?”

The answer was: to a point. The original distributor refused to release Happiness, and his subsequent films (Storytelling, Palindromes) continued to mine this vein in even more challenging ways. “I could have gone, obviously, from Dollhouse onto a big-budget Hollywood film,” he says. “Once, years ago, I had a meeting with Drew Barrymore about doing Charlie’s Angels, and I loved the idea of playing with these icons and designing a film around them, and Drew was very into the idea, but we both knew that the studio would never hire me, and they were right, because their movie made $300 million. My movie would have made three. The movie itself had no interest for me. I would have been open to it, but it’s just the moth going to the flame.”

Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson in Life During Wartime. Photo: Francisco Román/Courtesy of IFC Films

For the record, Solondz says he was “never particularly interested in pedophilia to begin with.” But like a moth to the flame, he is interested in extremes, and pushing the boundaries of areas of human behavior that are confidently demarcated by the culture. “It’s easy to say ‘Yes, I love mankind,’ but are you going to make exceptions?” he asks. “What are our limits, and how does that make us richer, or not, if we are able to embrace all of this about who we are?” This is not an easily plumbed area for popular entertainment, of course. And in Life During Wartime, pedophilia is conflated with terrorism. He talks about his films as if he too were surprised at their gruesomeness. Even while he says, “Look, my job is to manipulate an audience without my audience feeling like they’re being manipulated,” he’ll describe how he couldn’t watch the borderline rape scene in Storytelling while it was being filmed.

As the poet laureate of the put-upon, the outmaneuvered, and the earnestly delusional, he’s prone to self-deprecating defiance. “There are a lot of people who hate me, I know,” he says. But you don’t get the idea that he feels he can do much about that. He’s aware that indie culture no longer needs him in the same way. “His work is just as important and interesting as it was ten years ago,” says James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, whose previous company distributed Happiness. “It’s just not the next big thing.”

What is new in Life During Wartime is the introduction of forgiveness: Can Solondz allow his characters to forgive one another for evil behavior? He denies that the arrival of Elroy has anything to do with his newfound sensitivity. But the answer is tangled, of course. As it always is for him. “After I had screened Happiness at a festival early on, there was a college kid—who was a little bit drunk, I must assume—who approached me and said, ‘Man, that scene where that kid gets raped, that was hilarious,’ ” says Solondz. “And I knew I was in trouble. That was not the response that I was looking for, which is why I said afterward that my movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.”

Somewhat Happily Ever After