Life During Wartime
Directed by: Todd Solondz
Written by: Todd Solondz (screenplay)
Starring: Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, and Michael Lerner
Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is not as vulgar as his 1998 film Happiness, though this will be little consolation to anyone who sees it. Embedded in this painfully funny movie are unspeakably awful events, and part of what gives the movie its edge and its comedy is how callously these characters seem to treat them.
Solondz has made a sequel to Happiness in his own way. The characters are the same, though all the actors are different. You will be able to understand this movie without seeing its predecessor. We’re revisiting these people as if we were dropping in on a random episode of Seinfeld; if you’re familiar with the characters you’ll get more out of it.
The movie begins with two people sitting in a restaurant. Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) are talking about their problems, both marital and personal. This scene, with the the dimly lit room and the even dimmer conversation, already hints at the despair to come. What it also shows, though, is Solondz’s obsession with forgiveness in this film. Happiness was ultimately a series of heinous acts; now he’s wondering if any of these people deserve forgiveness.
Though Life During Wartime is an overt thematic meditation, it is still scathingly funny without condescending to its characters. Solondz, who also wrote the script, often finds the sweet spot between sadness and humor. It makes you wonder if they would be interchangeable with a simple dialogue tweak.
The three sisters that loosely hold the core of this movie, Joy, Trish (Allison Janney), and Helen (Ally Sheedy), are completely dysfunctional people with completely dysfunctional relationships. They recall more hopeless versions of the siblings in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Scattered around the country after the fallout from Happiness, Solondz uses the unstable, jittery Joy to connect them. She travels to Florida, where Trish has settled in with her children after her husband was jailed for pedophilia. Then she eventually makes her way to California, where Helen is dating Keanu Reeves (sadly, no cameo).
Joy insists to both her sisters that she just needed space from her husband, but the ghost of her past lover Andy (Paul Reubens) shows her true inner torment. In a way, all of these characters are haunted by ghosts, even if they don’t manifest themselves on the screen. This a family that is no longer together. For one demented reason or another, they find themselves in different parts of a fractured America.
Though the movie begins with Joy, it spends a large amount of time on Trish, her children, and her recently released ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds), a convicted pedophile. Trish is about to remarry an overtly Jewish man (Michael Lerner), and she proclaims his complete normalcy to her sister with utter glee. She never comes face-to-face with Bill, but his hold over her life is felt.
Solondz’s treatment of Bill is not condescending. Here, like in Happiness, he enjoys peeling back the layers of suburban life and studying them with demented fascination and empathy. The scene where Bill visits his oldest son (Chris Marquette) at college in Oregon is one of the film’s finest precisely because the characters are allowed to exist without judgment.
The pitch black humor found in many of the scenes often disarms the viewer, making way for raw, sincere emotion to surface. Solondz uses Trish’s middle child Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) like many movie children are used. He’s there to be told the themes and then convey them simply back to us. However, the bluntness with which Timmy comes to understand and, more disturbingly, accept these themes is what sets him apart.
Snyder and the rest of the cast all give truly amazing performances. This script would be funny on its own, but they inject the emotion necessary to elevate it to the level that their director needed. The actors are effective to the point that the use of classical music takes it dangerously close to the point of melodrama, but it manages to largely stay away.
Though many of the conversations in Life During Wartime are dimly lit, there are many brightly colored shots of Florida sunshine. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Solondz still manages to make them darkly atmospheric. Whether it’s a close-up of a character’s fractured face or a wide shot of them in their tropical home, he makes you feel their pain. Better yet, though, he makes you care about it against all odds.