Life During Wartime Reviews
Friends, family, and lovers struggle to find love, forgiveness, and meaning in a war-torn world riddled with comedy and pathos.
Director Todd Solondz takes the various dysfunctional characters of his earlier film, "Happiness", recasts them, and places them in "Life During Wartime". This facial reshuffling then becomes an enquiry on Solondz's part: have these people changed? Are major personality or life changes even possible? How contingent is human behaviour? How reversible are past scars? "Happiness" was a jet black comedy which jumped from paedophilia to suicide to masturbation to divorce to murder, deftly hopping from taboo to taboo with a kind of soul crushing cruelty. For Solondz, everything is a masquerade, humans are petty, pathetic and cruel, and every good deed merely masks something horrible at worst, hypocritical at best.
With "Wartime" Solondz tries to recapture the cringe comedy and satirical edge of "Happiness", but fails entirely, modern audiences now desensitised to his particular brand of sensationalism. With the taboo shocks out the window, his audience is then free to focus on the film's clunky message: the past scars the future, Solondz says, but all should be forgiven, lest a cycle of animosity, hate, fear and torment be perpetuated. The film then aligns these themes to the events of September the 11th; America as a nation should forgive those who abuse her, as those upon whom pain is inflicted in the film should forgive their tormentors, or themselves if necessary. It's all very reductive, but far from the misanthropy which critics of Solondz often accuse him of spouting. If anything, Solondz's a jaded idealist, his characters all looking for a way out of the rut he keeps digging them deeper into.
Despite what you may have heard, watch HAPPINESS first! You'll probably hate this film otherwise. Not knowing who the characters are going in will make portions extremely frustrating.
Here he revisits some old characters with new actors playing them, (not in itself a problem, the wonderful "Palindromes" did nothing but switch around the actors for the whole film). There is still the same wit here and plenty of laughs, but the shock factor is way down on his other films. I am sure it will still shock the easily offended, but something was not quite as sharp in it. The story seemed slighter, some of the roles miscast, (Shirley Henderson in particular the kind of actress you would like to strangle). Maybe it was just time to retire these characters and invent some new ones.
As usual, Solondz here fixes his sights on suburbia, probably the easiest cultural target imaginable. It's true that Solondz is uniquely attuned to suburban neurosis; he's just running out of things to say about it. The hottest parts of the film overwhelmingly are two bravura cameos by Charlotte Rampling as a sex-starved walking death ray and Ally Sheedy as a grandiose, self-absorbed Emmy winner.
This film is a sequel of sorts to 1998's "Happiness," but with an entirely different cast. The story's emotional centers are Joy (Shirley Henderson, spellbinding based on her unusual voice alone), her sister Trish (Alison Janney, dependably great) and Trish's fragile son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder, dependably grating). Ally Sheedy portrays a third sister (now a rich, frazzled screenwriter), but her part is mostly limited to one showcase scene.
Joy is married to Allen, an obscene phone-caller who struggles to control his compulsion (he limits himself to "just a little on Sundays"). She's also visited by the miserable ghost of Andy, a past suitor who killed himself (I'll omit the actor's name, because it might be an exciting surprise). Trish has two other children, a young daughter (she looks about five) and a college-age son. Her estranged husband Bill is a convicted pedophile who's fresh out of prison but believed dead by his younger kids. Trish is also newly in mismatched love with Harvey (Michael Lerner), who has an adult, ill-adapted son. Both she and Timmy are neurotically wary about Harvey showing signs of sexual deviance. Charlotte Rampling adds a gutsy cameo as a self-loathing barfly who tempts Bill.
These varied characters are woven together through a string of intense, confrontational scenes. The ending is somewhat open but it's not fair to demand a strong resolution, given how irreversibly damaged these people are.
Undeniably, writer/director Solondz still aims to cross boundaries and make his audience uncomfortable. A rapturous Trish tells Timmy that Harvey makes her wet, and casually directs her tiny daughter where to find anti-depressants in the medicine cabinet. Bill asks his son if he has any rape fantasies. Two sex scenes are brutally animalistic. Even a lunch date has a trivial, awkward moment where Trish sends back her salad because the dressing wasn't served on the side. And of course, talk of suicide and molestation is always squeamish. However, Solondz seems more compassionate this time around, and not just intent to sadistically punish his characters to avenge his own wounds. This is crucial.
"Life During Wartime" may capture ambivalent viewers more than expected. It's a lovely-looking film with its moist, golden tones and interesting faces, and it also includes a beautiful title song (not the Talking Heads classic -- this one is co-written by Solondz and Marc Shaiman). If you don't mind a little despair -- OK, a lot of despair -- you'll find "Life During Wartime" quite powerful. And be sure to pay close attention to the final seconds!
I'm a big fan of Todd Solondz, and I particularly loved his 1998 film, HAPPINESS. It blended scathing social commentary with edgy humor and found the perfect balance. LIFE DURING WARTIME is almost a hybrid of HAPPINESS and his last feature, PALINDROMES, in the sense that it's a sequel to the former, but with an entirely different cast, which the latter experimented with to very strange effect. By presenting familiar characters with a completely new set of people, his most recent film achieves something rare in a sequel --- DISTANCE. Usually we go into a new chapter of a film story with great familiarity and warmth towards the protagonists. Here, we're basically meeting them all over again.
The opening to HAPPINESS featured one of my favorite first movie scenes of all time - -Jon Lovitz being dumped by Jane Adams while out at a restaurant. (THE SOCIAL NETWORK recently topped this scene for me.) This movie opens with another dinner table scene, but the crazy, angry humor has been replaced with numbing sadness. Something's going on with Solondz, and it's definitely not frilly and light. His neverending obsession with pedophilia gets quite a workout here, as do his recurring themes of regret and forgiveness. The cast is stellar, although Shirley Henderson is so bizarrely zombiefied, I grew tired of her quickly. Allison Janney does well with what she's been given, but frankly, these aren't characters you can easily love or relate to - -they're moral archetypes who more often than not speak in such portentous tones, they wouldn't look out of place in a sword and sandals epic like BEN HUR.
Every now and then, there are laughs to be had here, but they usually fall under the category of "funny because I didn't expect a child to say something so vulgar" or "funny because I didn't expect a parent to say that in front of a child". This isn't exactly humor on a SANDRA BULLOCK COMEDY scale.
Solondz is certainly talented, and he definitely wants to keep asking big questions --- which I applaud --- but the joy seems to have been sapped out of him, and what we're left with isn't exactly knocking my socks off. He's now done two sequels to two of his best known films. Todd, please dear God move on to something else and don't do a followup to STORYTELLING. I'm sure we'd all rather see your take on the next FOCKERS film instead!
"Life during Wartime" is a sequel to Todd Solondz's previous film "Happiness" with an entirely different cast of actors, in a daring move to suggest how much we all change over time. Whether or not the characters have learned anything new in the interim or are capable of forgiveness is quite another matter as they are haunted literally by past decisions. While forcing the issue somewhat, Solondz still handles these themes well, as he would not extend forgiveness to those who would hurt others like pedophiles or terrorists. In such uneasy times, he actually manages to be funny occasionally(Charlotte Rampling in particular is a hoot) while lacking much optimism about these lonely characters. Notice how rough and ugly the sex is. It has nothing to do with the ages of the participants, as the activity is borne out of a sense of desperation, not lust or love.
His father has been just released from prison, a pedophile who is disowned by his family. They would rather believe that he's dead, and so they tell that story to anyone who asks.
And there's Joy. She's having a bit of relationship trouble. She taking some time off from her husband, Allen, after his relapse into his "problem". People just call him a pervert and leave it at that.
This is the setup for Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, an ambitious film that asks a single question: Just what does it mean to forgive and forget? With it's many characters, Wartime may be confusing for some, and even a bit too spot-on thematically, but the results remain emotionally resonant.
Allison Janney gives a wonderful performance as a woman struggling to start over with a new flame, and to guide her maturing son. What connects all these many characters is that yearning for a fresh start, the need to wash themselves of past mistakes, and seek forgiveness. To forget all the things that are best left forgotten.
But what exactly can be forgiven? Can you forgive a murderer, a terrorist, a pedophile? And even actions that are forgiven may never be forgotten. Perhaps, as Joy discovers, they linger and haunt our memories like ghosts.
Todd Solondz is a brilliant mind. And he will always be a brilliant mind. He caught my eye when I first saw his controversial second-feature "Happiness", and now to my surprise, he's made a sequel. This is odd, because the ending of the first film was one that never truly asked for a sequel; nor did it shout such a word in our faces. I didn't want a sequel; but I also didn't mind that there was one. I watched "Life During Wartime" with some decent expectations; perhaps even expecting the unexpected. Solodnz is not new to the element of surprise; but that's what I admire about him. And "Life During Wartime" is, in that sense, most definitely a Todd Solondz film.
As a sequel to "Happiness", the film picks up years after the events of that film, with most of the same characters returning; but each played by a different actor. Allan (Michael Kenneth Williams filling in for Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sexually depraved sleazy-phone-caller that once lusted after his neighbor, is now married to Joy (Shirley Henderson replacing Jane Adams), the ironically named, forever-depressed and worrisome sister of Trish (Allison Janney, rather skillfully taking the part from Cynthia Stevenson). If you remember correctly, Trish was married to Bill (Ciaran Hinds, an inferior actor to the previous portrayer, Dylan Baker), who turned out to be a pedophile. Since this story takes place years later after "Happiness", the two sons and the daughter have grown up; the central one of the first film, Billy, now being in college.
Bill is looking for redemption. Joy is still searching for happiness; something that she can't come to terms with due to the fact that she's being frequently visited by the ghost of a former lost lover who offed himself (Paul "Pee Wee" Reubens), and also because her relationship with Allan is often distant and more-often misunderstood.
Timmy, the youngest son of Bill and Trish, is about to become thirteen. The family is Jewish; thus, he must prepare for his grand bar mitzvah. He believes that this will automatically allow him to enter adult-hood; but he is faced with the acceptance of his mother's new lover and his father's true identity, which his mother has been keeping from him forever.
In "Happiness", every central character was depraved. The film was highly controversial and detracted due to its depiction of themes such as masturbation, pedophilia, rape, and the link between happiness and sadness all-together. That was a film that mixed the emotions and sadness, happiness, and humor together flawlessly. With "Life During Wartime", Solondz has captured the basics of human desperation; but attempts to earn his audience through our familiarity with the characters and their personalities from the first film. But he forgets that they were played by different actors, some more capable than the new guys, but none-the-less, he does well here.
The film is good for what it is. "Life During Wartime" is a film that is most definitely worth seeing. It's a dark comedy that turns its once tragic material into all-out farce; instead of just adding humor here-and-there. It's not hilarious, and it's not meant to be, but it does have some very big laughs as long as you can be accepting. I suppose I enjoyed myself when I watched it. This is Todd Solondz's film; this is his story; his world. I admit that he made the film that he may have wanted to make. But a sequel to "Happiness", and a great sequel, was impossible; and he knew it. He's made an entirely different film out of similar material. The actors do their jobs. In the end, there are things I liked about the film and things I greatly disliked. I liked the ambition and the story that it was trying to tell as well as the familiar risks that Solondz took with his screenplay. I also liked the cinematography and the visual craft that accompanies the story-telling. But then again consider the fact that I intend to make a bit of an emotional investment in films that cover such subjects not only for comedy but also for drama; and I just didn't "feel" anything, whilst "Happiness" had me in tears in one of its best scenes. You'll find nothing of the like here, but since films can just "be"; this one isn't all that bad.