Todd Solondz goes back to the Happiness well with his latest feature. Life During Wartime is a direct sequel to the controversial 1998 film featuring a family of three sisters, the various men connected to them (a misogynist freeloader and thief, a pedophile and a loathsome crank-calling pervert), their kids, and their parents. But the director has recast every single role (echoes of his lead actress switching in his last film, Palindromes) and pushed the films setting to Florida during current times. He has also scaled back the ‘extreme’ tone of the film. There are no white body fluids, or lengthy attempts to seduce young boys against their will. This is the Solondz film you can show your grandmother. That does not mean his deadpan and droll sense of humour is not in full effect however. The sisters continue to seek some kind of satisfaction or at least solace (while always pretending to be happy), the tone of this film is more one of forgiveness.
Joy (a radiant and fragile Shirley Henderson) is haunted from the suicide of her former lover who visits her at inopportune times to tell her that he is off his medication (yes, in Solondz’s world, even the spirits are medicated with antidepressants). She has broken up with her husband (Michael Kenneth Williams, aka “Omar from The Wire”), an ex-con she met in her job working at the convict rehabilitation center. Meanwhile Trish (here Allison Janney) has been looking for a new man after her husband, Bill was sent off to prison for touching young boys and telling her youngest son that his father died while her older son (not quite directly victimized by his dad in Happiness) is now in college. She hopes to have found the ideal replacement with Harvey, a heavyset and ‘normal’ Jewish man with a nebbish 25 year old son. But her ex (Ciaran Hinds playing a much more subdued and sober version of Dylan Baker’s signature role) is released from prison and is on his way down to reconnect. Bill has a chance encounter in a bar with a woman (played by Charlotte Rampling at her most withering) and the ensuing harmony of self-loathing may just be the pinnacle moment of Solondz’s favourite topic. Because these characters instinctively can smell it on each other, an awkward situation is not so awkward as it is sad and soul crushing. Yes. Comedy. Bill re-connects with both his wife and his eldest son in compelling (and subdued) drama which gets at what place he is coming from after his own prison. Forgiveness is the goal, even if he cannot articulate it directly. Meanwhile Helen (Ally Sheedy) continues to be ridiculously successful (if a palatial estate and phone calls from Salmon Rushdie and Keanu Reeves are the benchmark) if still vindictive and unhappy. The interactions between the sisters and their orbiting relationships play out over dinners, restaurant lunches and Trish’s youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah as the boy comes to grips on what takes to become a man with a decided lack of rolemodels.
A tableaux of dysfunctional families in America Life During Wartime looks at the prisons that are filled with secrets and lies and constructed for unfathomable reasons; it is just life. Absurd, warm, ugly, sweet and pretty darn funny, Todd Solondz will hopefully keep making these family portraits as he continues along