Life During Wartime

Dir: Todd Solondz, 2009. Starring: Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Ciaran Hinds, Ally Sheedy. Comedy.
Life During Wartime
If you've yet to see Todd Solondz's film Happiness and you plan on seeing it, I suggest you watch this film afterwards because it is a sequel of sorts and would therefore spoil much of the movie's plot. As with Palindromes and other movies, Solondz has revived characters from a previous film with an entirely different cast and a different agenda. In Life During Wartime we find the Jordan family in an aged distress. Set in Florida, where the bulk of the family has now migrated after their experiences with divorce and heartache, the movie follows their path of forgiveness as they try to forget and/or interpret what went wrong in their lives.

In Happiness, the film ended with the entire family sitting at a table. The three sisters, Joy, Helen and Trish, were more or less sulking with their parents who were on the brink of separation. Joy was a humanitarian who wanted to make a difference, Helen a disillusioned housewife, and Trish a vain author. Helen and Trish played matchmaker to Joy, the black sheep, and Trish offered to set her up with her neighbor Allen, who enjoyed calling women from a phone book to sexually harass them. In Life During Wartime, Joy (Shirley Henderson) works with ex-cons instead of refugees and is now married to Allen, who confesses that he still makes lewd phone calls to women. Feeling betrayed, she goes to Florida to visit her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) in the hopes that she can help her put her life in order.

As was the case in Happiness, Helen isn't doing so great herself. Her husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), a convicted pedophile, is being released from prison. Her son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who was no older than five when his father committed his crimes, discovers that his mother has lied to him by saying that his father died. Her daughter Chloe who was an infant in the previous film is now a six-year old on the same psychotropic drugs as her mother. Her son Billy, who had the biggest attachment to his father, is off to college. Helen has started dating again and is rushing into an engagement with a man several years her elder, who has his own adult children. His presence strikes a panic in Timmy who now fears the touch of a man and wants to be ready for his approaching bar mitzvah—an event that he thinks will literally turn him into a man.

Joy doesn't find solace in Florida so she goes to visit her sister Trish (Allison Janney) in Hollywood, who's dropped creative literature for screenplays. As always, her passive aggressive bullying and self-pity becomes an annoyance to Joy, who is having more issues than she knows how to handle. Throughout her journey in self-discovery she's started seeing the ghost, or perhaps hallucination, of her ex-boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens). In Happiness, the filmed opened up with their breakup, after which Andy killed himself. Now hit with regret over his actions, the ghost visits Joy in the hopes of getting her to confess that she did love him, and to ask for a second chance. Meanwhile, Bill is desperately trying to get his life back in order and find his son Billy. While a reunion seems ridiculous and risky for someone in his position, he wants to make sure that his son didn't end up like him.

As with all of Solondz's films, one can find plenty of jaw-dropping dialogue and some wonderful dark comedy. Though my next statement is purely subjective, I don't believe that it's his strongest work, but definitely the most witty among them. Those familiar with his other films seem to enjoy the abrasiveness of them. And while I'll admit that Happiness is my favorite, Storytelling comes excruciatingly close. The two movies are vastly different, though. Where Happiness brought dark comedy to sexual deviants and dysfunctional families, Storytelling did so with those issues, success, class status, education, and much more. In a way, Life During Wartime eliminates the frenzy that comes after the end of Happiness. Solondz's films make you accept your role as a voyeur in our modern world, and with the impulse to watch comes the desire to see things to the finish. This movie grants you that ability, and if you can get past your loyalty to the earlier cast, I think you'll find that the messages here go beyond exploitation and discomfiture. It's not a happy ending by any stretch of imagination, but it grants closure to the disturbed family that you invested so much energy into in Happiness. My biggest complaint is that the cast was a bit too large, and as a result, you couldn't become very invested in some of the characters. I would have loved to see more of Paul Reubens and Charlotte Rampling, who literally took my breath away with her short but powerful performance in the film.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 25, 2011 12:22pm
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