Life During Wartime (United States, 2009)July 22, 2010
In 1998, Todd Solondz's Happiness became one of the most talked-about and controversial indie films of the year - a black comedy that ventured into David Lynch territory to expose the rot underlying the placid exterior of suburbia. At the time, Happiness was cited as a breakthrough for the reclusive Solondz but, over the course of the next decade, his career has stalled. During the '00s, he made only two movies - the poorly focused Storytelling and the gimmicky Palindromes. Life During Wartime, a direct sequel to Happiness, feels like the attempt of a once-promising filmmaker to recapture some old magic. Thematically, the movie covers the same ground furrowed by its predecessor. Shorter in length and with fewer richly-drawn characters, Life During Wartime relies on uncomfortable black humor and moments of sincere drama to involve viewers. But everything is encased in artifice and the movie becomes a chore to take in.
The gimmick that helped sink Palindromes - using multiple actors to play the lead character - rears its ugly head in Life During Wartime, indicating this is more than a passing fancy for Solondz. In this case, he ditches the entire cast from Happiness and replaces them with new actors. Considering how perfect some of the originals were (Dylan Baker and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in particular), this is a strange decision. It might not matter if Life During Wartime could stand on its own, but the narrative is constructed in a way that at least a passing familiarity with the events of Happiness is, if not mandatory, at least helpful. The wholesale replacement of actors creates a bizarre disconnect, forcing viewers to relate to the characters not as people but as chess pieces being moved around by Solondz. Some of the new performers give fine portrayals but that doesn't diminish the frustration associated with having to dismiss lingering impressions from a movie that's a decade old.
As was the case with Happiness, Life During Wartime focuses on the trials and tribulations of three sisters. Trish (Allison Janney), the eldest, is divorced from her pedophile husband, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), who has just been released from jail. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is still as prone to depression as ever, and her marriage to former obscene phone caller Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is on the rocks. Helen (Ally Sheedy) doesn't have much to do except appear during one scene in which she displays a shocking degree of materialism fueled by narcissism. While Trish explores a relationship with Harvey (Michael Lerner), Bill goes on a road trip to visit his oldest son, Billy (Chris Marquette), at college. His goal: ensure that the apple has fallen far from the tree.
The tone of Life During Wartime (a title taken from the Talking Heads song) is similar to that of Happiness, although not quite as bleak. There's plenty of twisted gallows humor to be found in this tale of woe and tragedy. The setting has shifted from New Jersey to Florida, but the basic premise has not changed: life's a bitch and then you die. Sometimes, if you're smart, you help the process along. There appears to be a difference in how Solondz views his characters. In Happiness, he presented them - even the worst of them - with surprising sympathy. Here, there's contempt. The only one treated with dignity is Bill the pedophile, and that may be in part because of the strong work of Ciaran Hinds.
It took two viewings of Happiness for my feelings about that movie to crystallize. The film was disturbing but I came to realize there was a wealth of honesty in what was being said. Life During Wartime adds nothing substantive to Happiness. If anything, it detracts from it. Perhaps Solondz, never the most optimistic filmmaker, has grown even more cynical in the past decade, and Life During Wartime is simply unpleasant. Following an auspicious debut (Welcome to the Dollhouse) and a better follow-up, Solondz has turned into the magician with nothing left in his hat.
That being said, there are some strong moments in this movie, chief of which is the short, powerful scene between Bill and Billy. Solondz wisely does not attempt to resolve all the issues between them but instead opts for a quick, surgical sequence that says as much using body language as dialogue. Another memorable moment occurs when Joy leaves a message of hope and reassurance on the answering machine for Allen while the camera unflinchingly shows what's happening in the room where the message is being recorded. Finally, there's a delicious encounter between "monsters" when Bill has a drink with a predatory woman played with gusto by Charlotte Rampling. On at least these occasions, we are reminded of the old Solondz.
To fervent admirers of Happiness, Life During Wartime delivers the cruelest blow. Those who never saw the earlier film may find this one vaguely distasteful and not terribly interesting in the statement it makes about American society, with characters and circumstances that are only half-realized. Perhaps the audience that will react the most positively to Life During Wartime is comprised of those who saw Happiness upon its release but recall it only dimly. They may sense the kinship between the two films without recognizing how pale a shadow the sequel is.
Life During Wartime (United States, 2009)
Cast: Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Riley Snyder, Chris Marquette, Michael Lerner, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ally Sheedy
Screenplay: Todd Solonz
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films