There’s black comedy and then there’s Todd Solondz’ sense of humor. Which isn’t so much black as it is ... just plain wrong. Over the years, the writer-director has dug under the skin of middle-class suburbia, exposing the bleak, laugh-or-you’ll-cry ironies of life in these United States. Films like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling and Palindromes are as likely to incite a cringe as a chuckle. Needless to say, he’s not everybody’s cup of tea.
Solondz’ latest film, Life During Wartime, has the same so-wrong-it’s-funny vibe. And yet it feels somewhat gentler and easier to take than his earlier works. Does this make it a better, more mainstream film? Not really. What it lacks is the brutal, in-your-face honesty of previous efforts. The painful teenage angst of Welcome to the Dollhouse. The icky, behind-closed-doors revelations of Happiness.
Life During Wartime is set up as a direct sequel to Solondz’ scabrously funny (but mostly scabrous) 1998 film Happiness. Despite having the same characters, Life During Wartime feels less like a sequel and more like a rumination on similar topics. A postscript, if you will.
Not that you need to be familiar with Happiness to watch Life During Wartime. In fact, it may be better watch the film cold. Those walking into Life During Wartime with Happiness fresh in their minds might be a bit confused. For starters, Solondz has completely recast the film. This probably has less to do with the director’s ability to lure the original actors and more to do with his taste for puckish filmic experimentation. Solondz’ previous film, the almost unwatchably adventurous Palindromes, employed eight wildly different actors to play the main character. Why? Well, you’ll really have to consult Solondz on that one. Now he seems most interested in starting with a clean slate. Remember that other film I made? Good. Now forget it!
Life During Wartime introduces (or does it reintroduce?) us to the Jordan sisters, three siblings from New Jersey with a poor track record in life and love. For this go-around, they’ve abandoned New Jersey for the sunnier environs of Florida. Mousey Joy (Shirley Henderson from Bridget Jones’s Diary and a couple of Harry Potter films) is trying to overcome her epically failed marriage by hooking up with a semi-reformed gangbanger. Unfortunately, her new life partner hasn’t given up all his past vices. His comically large list includes “crack, cocaine, crack cocaine.” Also, she’s being haunted by the ghost of her late husband (played here by a freaky, volatile Paul Reubens).
Older, levelheaded mother-of-two Trish (Allison Janney from “The West Wing”) is trying to start over as well. She’s romancing a “normal” guy (Michael Lerner, playing a character imported from Welcome to the Dollhouse) after the death of her husband Bill. Unfortunately, Bill (Ciarán Hinds, Caesar from HBO’s “Rome”) isn’t actually dead. She just tells everyone that—including her youngest son. In fact, he’s just been paroled after spending several years in prison for molesting young boys.
Middle sis Helen (old-school Brat Packer Ally Sheedy) drops by briefly as well, a self-centered poet who’s gone Hollywood and is now sleeping with Keanu Reeves. ... Yeesh, she may be the worst-off out of all of them.
The theme here is “forgiving and forgetting.” It’s not a subtle theme, either. Both words are repeated at least 20 times throughout the course of the film. The first part seems doable—even for the most grievous of sins. (And trust me, there are some pretty grievous sins wafting around this family.) It’s the second part that’s the sticking point. Should Trish and her two sons forgive Bill for his pedophiliac past? Possibly. But can they forget? Should they? Would it be better for all involved if he had just died and gone away? What about Joy? Should she forget about her first husband’s suicide? Or is she simply dooming herself to repeat past mistakes?
Life During Wartime is a thought-provoking piece. It’s meant to be. Perhaps a little too much so. Nearly every scene consists of two actors sitting across from one another (usually in a restaurant or bar) and having some deep, soul-searching conversation. It’s like Woody Allen, only with jokes about rape and terrorism. The cast is amazing, but the acting is notably stilted, as if the director is afraid to let them wander too close to reality. For every moment of soul-scourging drama or deeply twisted humor there follows an oddball, off-kilter sequence that completely undercuts what came before it. That’s Solondz for you, though: a postmodern jokester who tears down his works even as he’s creating them.