Life During Wartime
Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Todd Solondz. Cast: Shirley Henderson, Dylan Riley Snyder, Allison Janney, Ciarán Hinds, Paul Reubens, Michael K. Williams, Michael Lerner, Rich Pecci, Chris Marquette, Ally Sheedy, Emma Hinz, Charlotte Rampling, Renée Taylor, Roslyn Ruff, Rebecca Chiles, Gaby Hoffmann. Screenplay: Todd Solondz.
Twitter Capsule: What you'd get if you watched Happiness and thought, 'I like it but I wish it were more pitiless. And uglier.'

Photo © 2009 Werc Werk Works, © 2010 IFC Films
In the years since we first met these characters in Solondz's Happiness, things have migrated from New Jersey to Florida, from pre-jail to post-jail, and from bad to worse. Life During Wartime is what you'd get if you watched Happiness and thought, "I like it, but I wish it were more pitiless. And uglier." So cinematographer Ed Lachman, who lensed the spiffy Erin Brockovich and made Far from Heaven look like a million bucks, has been hired here to light almost everyone with heavy, sallow, punishing contrasts, so that even visually, they lack the poignancy of the comparably stranded characters in Ken Park. And where the images go, the characterizations follow. Joy (formerly Jane Adams, now Shirley Henderson) isn't just a magnet for unstables and jerks who overreact to her gradual, nervous rejections but a deliriously wrong-headed songwriter who hides behind her hair, Ring-style, and has a trail of spurned boyfriends hounding her from the grave. Trish (formerly Cynthia Stevenson, now Allison Janney) is just as doltish and smugly self-deluding, though that's an even fiercer indictment considering that she's learned nothing from the experience of finding a pedophiliac serial rapist in her marriage bed. And speaking of him, Bill Maplewood (indelibly Dylan Baker, now Ciarán Hinds) is still as solicitous of his older son as he is detached from everyone else, but the doting, sensitive honesty that induced such chills between father and son in Happiness has become a sharkish, compulsive sense of barely restrained menace.

In a way, I found myself appreciating that Life During Wartime doesn't ask for the kind of cutting-edge credit that Happiness did; the Baker character was an unforgettable creation but also a cynical stunt, and he only made the rest of Happiness seem as shaky and insincere as it was. Life During Wartime, shorter by more than 30 minutes, is in every other way more compacted and more evenly scaled: Solondz is motivated here more by a generalized response than by a fascination with one or two characters that he pads out into a movie. And some of what he's come up with is very funny, as when Allison Janney rhapsodizes inappropriately to her pre-teen son about the near-orgasm she achieved just by brushing against a portly older man who isn't even her type, but to whom she'll quickly become engaged. When Timmy, the son, asks some understandable questions about exactly what pedophilia involves, Janney's reaction is as hilariously dishonest as it is effusive: "Over my dead body will anything ever get inside you, ever!" Ally Sheedy, despite and because of some scarily intense overacting, finds a confrontational humor in Helen's haughty narcissism that Lara Flynn Boyle totally missed, lamenting her relationship with moronic Keanu Reeves (name-checked only, never seen), and offering unsolicited advice to mousy Joy before realizing, with uproarious curtness, "No, I have no advice for you."

Life During Wartime has plenty of moments where the characters' derision or their cluelessness, or both, is acted or verbalized so ferociously that you cannot help but chuckle, though it's always a chore to sit through dialogue scenes that are obviously meant to startle but simply fall flat, like most of this script's 2003-era jokes about terrorism. The bigger problem is that none of the riskier conceits in the movie quite work, like the undead boyfriends or the stand-alone scenes with new characters (including a repulsive one-night stand involving Charlotte Rampling, playing a broken-down piranha). The inevitable denouement of Hinds's plotline, when he finds the now-grown son who cried at the end of Happiness at the news that Daddy didn't want to abuse him, turns on a much more predictable and much less shivery line of questioning. It might be a memorable scene in a different movie, but in this one it seems too obviously intended to recapture the charge of that darkly lit living-room climax in Happiness, and it falls short. Undermining our sense of the Hinds character's reality only further dulls the impact of his scenes, and then the whole movie screeches to a halt: just when you're settling in for an Altmanesque convergence of all these re-introduced characters, Solondz ends the movie. Again, there's something to be said for this truncated ending: Life During Wartime stays short and impenetrable, a tough little nugget of bad feelings, often played for throat-catching laughs. In some ways, I prefer the lack of an ending to the juvenile and facetious one that mars the final moments of Happiness, but having waited 12 years to check in on these characters, couldn't Solondz have waited another year, while he devised a third act for his script? Grade: B–

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Solondz's gifts for jet-black comic dialogue ("The crack, the cocaine, the crack cocaine...") and his aptitude for truly unnerving forms of provocation are enough to tide him through the weakest patches in his thinking and storytelling. When we're lucky, they afford him a thin but functional bridge across the absolute crevasse that is his refusal to sympathize. Life During Wartime is so saturated with contempt, though, even by Solondz's formidable standards, and yet so oddly complacent about riding the coattails of his most overrated movie, that even when the new film earns our laughter or our attention, it never feels urgent. It's too sullen to pay much attention to and too lashed to past accomplishments to feel current, if Solondz even cares about feeling current. A paradigm for a movie that would get festival journalists talking, at least at those festivals where it managed an invitation (which wasn't all of them), but seems over-challenged to ever attract a lasting critical regard, much less any impact on the public. The work of a gifted filmmaker whom few can imitate but who fails almost petulantly to rise to his own occasion.

Venice Film Festival: Best Screenplay

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