It feels a little wrong, even perverse, to describe a Todd Solondz film as “fun”. But Life During Wartime – the sequel to his acclaimed and highly disturbing 1998 picture Happiness – is fun. Solondz clearly enjoys returning to the world that made him an arthousehold name back in the late 1990s, delivering a picture that is as witty and biting as his earlier works. He’s recast all the characters from his 12-year-old film (sometimes drastically so) and is experimenting wildly with the rules of his movie universe (the Solondzphere if you will). He unites some of the most distasteful and despicable types of people on the planet (pitiful perverts, pedophiles, rapists, celebrities, the nouveau riche, the gaudy bourgeoisie) and thrusts them together, with the hope that they will sort themselves out accordingly, whether by achieving inner peace, finding true love, or killing themselves. Note to those living in the Solondzphere: don’t set your heart on those first two options.
The film, much like its predecessor, focuses on the lives of three sisters. There is Trish (a pitch-perfect Allison Janney in over-sexed-Mrs-Brady-mode), a single mother whose ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has spent the past ten years in jail for molesting the friends of his son Billy (Chris Marquette). There is Joy (Shirley Henderson at her loopy best), a softly-spoken and romantically confused artist/musician/bleeding heart whose partner (Michael Kenneth Williams) has a penchant for making lewd phone calls. Then there is Helen (Ally Sheedy), a self-involved celebrity who lives with “Keanu” and is far from the emotional and psychological trauma of her sisters, but still feels the need to wear the crown of ‘Most Tortured’. In the lead up to Trish’s other son Timmy’s (Dylan Riley Snyder) Bar Mitzvah, Joy tries to reconnect with her sisters, but is distracted by (not one but) two ghosts of former lovers who have offed themselves after she broke their hearts. Meanwhile, Trish is enjoying the romantic advances of Harvey Weiner (a character from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, played here by Michael Lerner) while Bill is adjusting (poorly) to life outside of prison. As the characters regularly remind each other, this is all happening while America is at war. Whether this “war” is the Iraq war or a fabricated, metaphorical war is hard to tell, especially over the cacophonous inner-and-outer psychosis each of these characters endure and inflict upon one another.
It’s impossible to deny that much of the so-called “fun” of Life During Wartime comes from our pre-existing knowledge of these characters from Happiness, and comparing the performances of these new actors with those from the original (which included Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Baker among others). However, Life During Wartime is a sequel in the sense that the characters are each revisited, and that’s it. Thematically, it’s much darker and less forgiving than Happiness (which is saying something). In that film, Solondz offered his characters love, respect, and the opportunity to acknowledge their rotten cores. Although the film ended with much of the characters in a state of profound misery, a number of them had an understanding of who they were as a human being – even if it meant accepting they were actually monstrous. Solondz, like a merciful deity, didn’t absolve them of their sins, but rather presented us with their humanity, whether we liked it or not. In Life During Wartime, he retracts his mercy, and subjects them to another round of soul-searching that ultimately leaves many of the characters even lonelier, or dead.
Is this retconning of the Happiness mythology a slap in the face to Solondz’ masterpiece? Not quite. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker’s opinions and passions change over time. He’s often called cynical, but I think his latest film demonstrates quite the opposite. Solondz is earnest; he wears his heart on his sleeve. Life During Wartime isn’t quite as disciplined as Happiness (he has a lot to say about a lot of things here, and it seems as if he’s a film or two away from refining his current feelings about human monstrosities in the modern world), and it occasionally falls short of its own aspirations but I’m just glad Solondz still has something to say. Only someone with his unique voice could say it in such a ‘fun’ way.