Life During Wartime

Less amusing than despairing, Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’ follow-up to his controversial 1998 gem Happiness, tracks its people through a haze of regret and trauma. The movie uses many of the same characters from Happiness, played here by different actors, and I suspect anyone who hasn’t seen the earlier film will be a little lost through this one. Happiness haunts Life During Wartime like a ghost, and indeed there are possible ghosts in the movie, accusatory spirits drifting into people’s lives. The film’s working title was Forgiveness, and that — and the lack thereof — is the theme here.

Fans of Happiness may recall that it focused on three adult sisters: suburban housewife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson in ‘98, Allison Janney now), flustered singleton Joy (Jane Adams then, Shirley Henderson now), and tortured poet Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle then, Ally Sheedy now). Trish’s husband turned out to be a pedophile, Joy flitted from one dysfunctional man to another, and Helen developed a strange thing for Allan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a perv who sexually harassed random women over the phone. Here, Allan (now played by Michael K. Williams) is married to Joy, though he hasn’t quite given up his twisted proclivities, and Trish is trying to forget ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), who’s just out of jail and wants to make sure his now-college-age son Billy (Chris Marquette) won’t follow in his footsteps.

Like the first film, Life During Wartime is full of endless ghastly conversations that redefine “awkward.” Trish’s 13-year-old middle son Timmy, for instance, asks her precisely how it is that pedophilic men can rape boys if they have the same parts. Or take Joy, visited by pathetic former flame Andy (Jon Lovitz in the first movie, Paul Reubens here), who killed himself after she dumped him; her husband has unwittingly bought her (on eBay) the same ashtray Andy gave her and then took back in Happiness. (I took one look at that ashtray and was probably as chilled as Joy is.) The restless spirit Andy wants to rekindle things, and, rebuffed, he launches once again into desperate vituperation (remember Lovitz’s “You’re shit. I’m champagne”?).

I doubt that Solondz, whose dyspeptic yet precise control never wavers, is taking the film into the paranormal; Andy and other dark figures from the past (including Bill, a walking, breathing ghost) symbolize past guilt and heartbreak that will never die. Solondz continues to make films as though it were still the mid-’90s and there were actually an audience for this sort of intractably bleak art-house film. I’m stunned, yet glad, that anyone gave him the money to make this movie, which offers little or no hope for its characters and very few laughs that aren’t choked gargles of disbelief. (The film should probably be seen with an audience if possible, just to hear the collective discomfort in the room.)

Again and again, people ask for forgiveness or question whether it’s possible in some cases. What does Solondz think? He doesn’t say. He just puts us among these walking dead and lets us observe them cringing their way through the long days and longer nights. Life During Wartime lacks the stinging clarity of Happiness, and its abbreviated running time makes it feel more like an addendum than a second volume, but it’s still galvanizingly perverse enough to stand out in what may be, so far, the blandest movie year in recent memory.

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