‘Life During Wartime’ Provides Haunting Coda to ‘Happiness’

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CHICAGO – Todd Solondz’s 1998 masterpiece, “Happiness,” is the darkest American comedy ever made. It’s so brutal and uncompromising that it calls into question the very definition of comedy. When one character explains to her sister that she isn’t laughing at her, but with her, the sister responds, “But I’m not laughing.” Solondz isn’t laughing either.

Like many provocateurs, Solondz has been accused of resorting to cheap shock tactics and stereotypes when attempting to portray his distinctively disturbing worldview. Yet Solondz is nothing if not sincere. His films directly confront the puritanical and judgmental instincts embedded in the human psyche that prevent us from identifying with others. He forces us to acknowledge the humanity lying within society’s most reviled creatures, particularly those suffering from arrested sexual development. The riotous laughter that “Happiness” elicited from audiences was undoubtedly caused by extreme discomfort rather than unbridled hilarity.

Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson star in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime.
Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson star in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime.
Photo credit: IFC Films

I doubt that many audiences will have the same reaction to “Life During Wartime.” It is a deeply intriguing though ultimately inessential follow-up to “Happiness,” revisiting the same ensemble of characters from the previous film, played by an entirely different ensemble of actors. This casting conceit wouldn’t be so jarring if “Happiness” weren’t such an impossible film to forget. No matter how good Shirley Henderson, Michael K. Williams and Ciarán Hinds are as performers, they can’t possibly erase the memory of Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Baker, the actors who indelibly inhabited their respective roles. And yet, this may be Solondz’s point, since his sequel is about people who fool themselves into believing that they can escape the past simply by changing the scenery. This theme was explored to far greater success in Solondz’s brilliant 2004 effort “Palindromes,” which cast actors of varying ages, races and genders in the role of a thirteen-year-old girl.

For all its various similarities, “Wartime” doesn’t aspire to be as mercilessly satirical or emotionally shattering as its predecessor. It may be the most disquietingly serious yet tenderly observed film Solondz has ever made, though it certainly isn’t devoid of the filmmaker’s trademark quirks. The story’s setting has changed from the claustrophobic interiors of New Jersey to the glaringly sun-drenched exteriors of Florida. The fact that Solondz actually shot the film in Puerto Rico adds another layer of off-kilter realism to the proceedings. While “Happiness” connected its various story threads with the tense relationship between three sisters, “Wartime” shifts its focus toward two of them, Joy (Henderson) and Trish (Allison Janney), as well as Trish’s younger son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who emerges as the film’s broken, fragmented heart. Trish has moved her family to Florida in order to escape the memory of her pedophile husband, Bill (Hinds), who she insists is dead. In actuality, Bill has been released on parole, and is determined to reconnect with his eldest son, Billy (Chris Marquette). Meanwhile, Joy’s disastrous relationship with the hopeless addict Allen (Williams) has inspired her to visit Florida, where she finds herself literally haunted by bitter ghosts from her past.

Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz
Photo credit: IFC Films

While the first film was largely about characters seeking happiness and fulfillment in all the wrong places, “Wartime” finds many of the same characters seeking forgiveness in a world fraught with post-9/11 paranoia. Solondz is clearly drawing parallels between his characters’ willful detachment from reality with the American public’s all-too-comfortable disconnect from the current war. Though this premise holds great potential, the film succeeds more as an intellectual experience than an emotional journey. Some of the story arcs simply aren’t credible in any realm of warped logic. When contrived misfortune befalls one of the Solondz’s truly good-hearted characters late in the picture, it seems to occur for no reason other than to superficially justify the filmmaker’s pessimistic vision.

Though “Wartime” bends over backwards to be thoroughly different from “Happiness,” it doesn’t help that the film’s best performances are evocative of the work from previous cast members. As the blissfully self-absorbed mother counting down the days toward an empty nest, the exquisitely funny Janney seems to be channeling the spirit of Cynthia Stevenson. One of Solondz’s masterstrokes was the decision to cast Paul Reubens as Joy’s deceased date from hell, Andy, played in the original picture by another recognizable comedian, Jon Lovitz. Reubens has himself been seeking forgiveness for past indiscretions, and he makes the most of his brief but potent screen time. And as Bill’s venomous one night stand, the mesmerizing Charlotte Rampling has the added benefit of playing an entirely new character. Other actors, especially Henderson and Williams, are blatantly miscast. Hinds’s subtle, brooding work is effective enough, but a far cry from Baker’s performance, which is among the most galvanizing in modern cinema. Watching any other actor in the role is like watching Vince Vaughn try his hand at Norman Bates.

As in all Solondz pictures, “Wartime” ends with a naive yet profound line delivered by its young protagonist, though this time, the line isn’t drenched in irony. “Life During Wartime” offers the most convincing evidence yet that Solondz deeply cares about his characters, and is uninterested in milking them for cheap laughs. Yet the filmmaker is also beginning to appear as stagnant as his characters. His style has certainly matured over the last decade, but his thematic limitations are beginning to catch up with him. One character in “Wartime” conspicuously owns a poster for Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” which utilized a casting gimmick similar to those that Solondz has featured in his last couple of pictures. Yet while Haynes aimed to show how one man can evolve, Solondz wants to prove that we all remain the same, no matter how much we try to delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve changed. Does Solondz feel the same way about himself?

‘Life During Wartime’ stars Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Ciarán Hinds, Michael Lerner, Chris Marquette, Michael K. Williams, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling, Rich Pecci, Gaby Hoffman and Paul Reubens. It was written and directed by Todd Solondz. It opened on August 6th at the Music Box. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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