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Life During Wartime

Happiness, more and less

Life During Wartime

By a substantial margin, the all-time best-renting movie at Mondo Video was Happiness, Todd Solondz’s film about the sexual and emotional difficulties of a New Jersey family. A cause celebre in 1998 when its original distributor refused to release it, it had a reputation as an “extreme” movie: Nothing offensive or disturbing was ever shown, but it contained descriptions of actions and displays of unvarnished emotions that can be hard to sit through. Many reviewers and audiences, even (especially?) fans of the director’s earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse, condemned it, whether because they felt that Solondz despised his characters or because it contained a sympathetic portrayal of a pederast. (Neither is accurate.)

When people would ask my opinion of it, I usually dodged the question by calling it a brave film, one that wasn’t afraid to go the edge even if it meant sometimes falling off the cliff. If ever a movie was meant to provoke an ambivalent reaction, Happiness was it.

It’s no easier to give a pat rating to Life During Wartime, Solondz’s unexpected sequel to Happiness. Those who loathed the former film probably won’t be as viscerally offended by this one (but how likely are they to see it?); fans of Solondz’s oeuvre may feel not care for his mellowing, though they should respond to its connections, not just to Happiness but his other films as well.

The returning characters are played by an entirely different cast. It probably wouldn’t have been possible for Solondz to reassemble the same group, so he took advantage of the situation by choosing a new cast that mirrored changes in the characters. In Happiness Dr. Bill Maplewood, a respected psychiatrist and suburban father, was played by the eminently decent Dylan Baker, which made it all the more shocking when we discovered him to be a pederast who preys on young boys. Here he is played by the fearsome, haunted-looking Ciarán Hinds, eminently believable as a man who has just spent 10 years in prison. In other cases he simply went with actors who were as different as possible, which may confuse viewers who haven’t seen Happiness in awhile: I didn’t realize that the African-American actor Michael Kenneth Williams was playing the same role as Philip Seymour Hoffman until after I had seen the film.

The setting has changed from New Jersey to Florida, where Bill’s ex-wife Trish (Allison Janney taking over for Cynthia Stevenson) has gone to rebuild her life. She’s about to remarry, to divorcee Harvey Weiner, a decision that she rather indelicately explains to youngest son Timmy, who is about to make his Bar Mitzvah.

Trish is visited by her sister Joy (Shirley Henderson, even more pathetically waifish than Jane Adams), who is having marital difficulties with her husband Allen and spiteful visitations from the ghost of ex-lover Andy (Paul Rubens in the Jon Lovitz role).

If the film has a central theme, it is forgiveness: the possibility and nature of it, applied to others and to ourselves. It’s the question that Timmy explores in writing his bar mitzvah speech, struggling to understand clichés in the way of children seeking moral lessons. And it’s all but an impossibility for Bill, who in the film’s strongest scene discusses it with a self-loathing older woman (Charlotte Rampling) who picks him up in a bar.

There’s no question that Solondz, a former student of theology, is grappling with serious concerns. But there are still traces of the bitterness that informs all of his work, as well as jokes that will strike many as cheap shots. (Joy and Trish’s other sister, poet-turned screenwriter Helen, once Lara Flynn Boyle, now Ally Sheedy, is a shrill mistake.) It seemed after Solondz’s last film, Palindromes, that he may have hit a career dead end. Life During Wartime is something of a holding pattern, indicating that he may yet have new things to say.

Watch the trailer for Life During Wartime

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