Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,vanity of vanities!
All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?
Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.
Compared to writer/director Todd Solondz, Qoheleth and Jeremiah are cock-eyed optimists. In his 2009 film, which I just caught on cable TV, Solondz paints a bleak, pessimistic view of human beings that seems to be a cinematic version of the old Puritan doctrine of the total depravity of humankind. The film is both a sequel to and sort of a remake of his 1998 film about a suburban Jewish family, ironically named Happiness, one that seemed to me to be a tad more optimistic than this dirge. Strangely enough, the filmmaker abandoned the excellent original cast, with even the race of one of the original characters being changed from white to black. Thus, I am not sure that it matters if you have not seen the original, though for anyone admiring the work of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the 1998 one is a “must see film.”
Life opens about ten years after Happiness, reuniting us with three sisters, Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish (Allison Janney), and Helen (Ally Sheedy), though the latter appears in just one scene. As in Happiness, many of the scenes take place in restaurants. The scene opens in one in which Joy’s black husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is trying to reconcile with her. He promises, “No more cocaine. No more crack. No more crack-cocaine.” The fed-up Joy’s resolve is weakening before this earnest pleading, but then the waitress comes up to take their order. Apparently recognizing Allen from news reports as a sexual predator, she spits at him and walks away. Joy questions him, and he admits that he has not quite reformed as much as claimed. Maybe he still acts on his passion a little bit, but only “On Sunday.”
Joy’s older sister Trish (Allison Janney) has left their family home in New Jersey so that her sons and little daughter can escape the notoriety caused by the sentencing of their therapist father Bill to prison for his sexual preying upon the friends of Billy. The 13-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley) is still at home, and Billy (Chris Marquette) is away at college. Timmy, getting ready for his bar mitzvah, has grown up with the story that his father has died.
Trish, getting back into the dating game again, dines with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a pudgy businessman emerging from a bitter divorce battle. She is delighted that he is so “noooormal,” compared to her convicted pedophile husband. This is the quality she describes to the curious Timmy, along with her sexual arousal by Harvey’s merely touching her arm. However, later, when Timmy, learning from school friends who have discovered through Google that his father is alive and serving a prison sentence for pedophilia, she puts a very different spin on touching. Timmy is worried that he might turn out like his father— “I don’t want to be a faggot.” His mother assures him that is not the case. The boy presses her for what happens during sexual contact between two males, and her clumsy response is both absurd and tragic. The latter because, in trying to reassure him that he is safe, she warns him that if ever a man should touch him, he should scream. This will have unintended consequences later in what begins as a tender scene but climaxes with her dream for a new start in family life shattered beyond repair.
After her break-up with Allen, Joy abandons her altruistic work with flies first to Florida, and then to Los Angeles where sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) is a successful writer for television. They talk about forgiving and forgetting, but Helen is still so scarred from her past that she cannot really help Joy. She is unable to focus on anyone else and their troubles because of her unhappy self-centeredness. Joy is continually haunted by appearances of her dead lover Andy (Paul Reubens), who has committed suicide.
Interspersed throughout the sister scenes are those of the imprisoned pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds, much grimmer in the role than was Philip Seymour Hoffman). Paroled from prison, he travels from New Jersey to Florida in the forlorn hope of relating again to his oldest son Billy. Along the way, he drinks alone at his hotel bar where he makes eye contact with the middle-aged Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling)
who obviously is on the prowl. They engage in conversation and in loveless sex. The guilt-ridden Bill raises the issue of forgive and forget with the woman, who calls herself a monster. Her callous replies bear out her self-designation, her final comment being that forgiveness is for losers. He rises first the next morning and searches through her purse for money. She awakens and, her voice fil cynicism directs him to the roll of bills tucked in a corner.
This theme of forgive and forget a rises numerous times throughout the film. Timmy’s paper that he is to read at his bar mitzvah connects becoming a man to forgiveness. Joy and Helen had discussed it, as did Trish and Timmy. Her son is so strongly pro-forgiveness, declaring that he would forgive even terrorists, that his surprised mother asks, “Are you saying you would forgive the 9/11 terrorists?” The very practical boy replies, “Well, no, not those terrorists because they’re dead.” When Harvey accepts Trish’s dinner invitation so he can meet Billy, he brings his grown son Mark (Rich Pecci), who has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome that he becomes a drag on the table conversation. However, alone with Timmy, he shares his philosophy that people cannot change. Can you forgive the attacker who punches you in the face? One of the terrorist setting the off the explosions they see on TV? Of course, the two being Jews, Hitler? And bringing it closer to the boy, “Your father?” For Mark “forgive and forget make absolutely nonsense.
The last we, or anyone in the film, see of Bill is his brief visit to his son in Billy’s dorm room. It is a tense confrontation, with the father seeking forgiveness and the son too surprised to respond in a meaningful way. When Bill asks questions about the lad liking girls and dating, he is relieved to see that he had come to assure himself that he was not like him, that the boy was not doomed to repeat his mistakes. When it is obvious that Billy is not going to embrace him and his offer to reconcile, he leaves. Billy hesitates for a moment, then rushes out into the hallway. It is empty. Whatever he might have wanted to say or do, it is too late.
Timmy does read his speech at his bar mitzvah. All but Bill are there. All, that is, but Harvey, and we will leave it to you to discover why. The film ends a little later on a poignant note. Timmy is deeply sorry for what he has done. In a conversation with his mother, he says, “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.” Some have said this film is about the three sisters, and one reviewer thought it was about the pedophile father. But this, added to a clip scattered through the film, shows that Timmy is the focus of the film’s maker. In the clip the camera slowly pans over a lovely tree and flower lined pond until, ad end of the water we see a boy, out of focus. Only at the end is the figure in focus. It is, of course, Timmy.
This is not an easy film to watch. I came close to giving up about a third of the way in., Solondz’s take on life is so dark, and his view of his characters and their acts is ambiguous. Does he want to laugh, as I clearly remember many did during a scene in Happiness that to me was tragic, and thus warranted a sympathetic tear? Does he mock them because he despises them, as some critics have suggested? I do not know. Only that the film raises the important theme of love, of forgiveness and forgetting in powerful ways. This is one film you ought not to watch alone. From the many reviews that I have read (I’ve never consulted so many as for this one!), it seems that the film is like a Rorschach test, the response to it depending upon the viewers’ experience and values. If you are one who appreciates the dark insights of Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, you probably can take this film. And by seeing it with others, you will be enriched by the reactions and insights of your fellow viewers.
Note: You might want to compare the way that a pedophile is depicted in another film, Nicole Kassell’s far more positive 2004 film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon as a recently released pedophile struggling against his dark urges while being harassed by the cop who originally arrested him and now hoping to catch him in another act and thus be sent away for good.
This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.