The potential audience for Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s belated pseudo-sequel to his brilliant 1998 film Happiness, can be neatly divided into two categories -- those who have seen the earlier film and those who have not. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to recommend that someone from either category pay to see this film. Those who haven’t seen Happiness will likely be confused by certain points related to the characters and the narrative, and will definitely be missing out on a level of interpretation and reference that is clearly intended by the filmmaker. Meanwhile, those who have seen Happiness can only be disheartened and depressed by this markedly inferior follow-up, which seems to revel in its derivative and parodic status and thus maintains a safe distance from the reality it ostensibly wishes to critique.
Any discussion of Life During Wartime requires a brief explanation of Solondz’s unusual concept for the sequel, which revisits the characters from Happiness several years after the events of that film. Much as he did with his 2004 film Palindromes, in which several different actors take turns playing the lead role, Solondz gets creative with his casting by bringing in all new actors to play the parts. Some of the new actors are physically similar to their predecessors (Shirley Henderson taking over for Jane Adams as Joy, the mousy singing sister), while others could scarcely be more different (The Wire’s Michael K. Williams replacing Philip Seymour Hoffman as Allen, the serial phone-sex freak). Even more baffling is the introduction of a character named Harvey, played by Michael Lerner, who seems to share certain biographical information with Lenny, the divorced father played by Ben Gazzara in Happiness. Though both Harvey and Lenny are older white men who are recently divorced from lengthy marriages to women named Mona, they are in fact different characters, as evidenced by the fact that Harvey becomes romantically involved with Trish, who was Lenny’s daughter in the first film. Confused yet? Solondz obviously expected as much, as the script of Life During Wartime is peppered with unnatural expositional notes, as when one person finds it necessary to remind Joy that she has another sister (Helen), and Trish helpfully tells her son Timmy that his brother Billy is now in college.
It’s possible to imagine a cinematic situation wherein this disorientation might serve to subvert our expectations and advance the larger themes of the film in lieu of trivial narrative concerns. But such a grand scheme never becomes apparent in Life During Wartime, which resolutely locks onto a limp plot involving how the family of Bill (Ciaran Hinds), a convicted child molester, comes to terms with his release. Though Solondz periodically calls out the detachment and alienation that mark our modern culture and even takes some lackluster stabs at invoking exalted topics like love and forgiveness, he repeatedly sabotages any hints of depth or relevance by employing stilted dialogue, caricatured performances, and several rather pathetic attempts at humor. Fans who recall being simultaneously sickened and amused by the sinister proclivities of the characters in Happiness will be sorely disappointed to see Solondz trying to milk some merriment from a series of sitcom-level bits which might have been culled from the rejection pile at Saturday Night Live. Instead of Dylan Baker casually taking a machine gun to a park full of idyllic picnickers or Camryn Manheim engaging in prepared hysterics as she confesses how she dispatched her doorman, we get an overly enthusiastic hostess at a chain restaurant, a pubic hair in a hotel bed, a mother sedating her daughter with prescription drugs, and a major award being employed as a weapon. If you still get a kick out of powder-blue tuxedoes or jokes about Keanu Reeves’ first name, you’re in luck -- this film has one of each.
Nothing seems natural in Life During Wartime -- the speech is blatantly scripted, the reactions are choreographed, the emotions are automatic. One character sleepwalks with amazing precision and carries on a running conversation with a dead man while another has a recurring dream which systematically approaches its resolution as the film persists. Solondz, who once seemed poised to emerge as the most authentic chronicler of the unspoken, awkward peril of life as an individual trapped in a social world, is now evidently content to play make-believe, as his mise-en-scene radiates with the bogus glow of a Tim Burton film. Cloaked in pristine costumes and surrounded by candy-colored sets, the bleary-eyed characters swap laments and abstract inquiries. One of them implores us to imagine a world where “no one ever pretended,” and you might try your best to do this, hoping that the film would spontaneously combust if you're successful.
But the superficial status of Life During Wartime begins with its flawed premise, which forces the film into such a specific referential relationship with Happiness that it can never really exist, let alone succeed, as a sovereign artistic enterprise. A great many of today’s films are similarly removed from reality, but the difference is that some of us had come to expect more of Solondz after the promise of his early career. With this regrettable project, he can do no better than to remind us of that promise by harkening back to his better days.
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- Released: 2009
- Review: The potential audience for Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s belated pseudo-sequel to his brilliant 1998 film Happiness, can be neatly divided into two categories -- those who have seen the earlier film and those who have not. Unfortunately, it’s difficu… (more)