It would be so nice to give Todd Solondz the benefit of the doubt. There’s something going on in Life During Wartime, something beyond the gimmickry of revisiting the deeply dysfunctional extended New Jersey family he introduced in 1998’s Happiness with an entirely different cast. And it would be great to think that Solondz was primarily interested in getting at something real—if he weren’t doing the cinematic equivalent of making a fart noise every time things got too uncomfortably serious.
Because Happiness—for all its uncomfortable subject matter and lacerating despair—was nothing if not profoundly human. Solondz took his miserable characters on a journey in which they were forever trying to figure out how to be “normal” and doomed by their frailties never to succeed. Life During Wartime could have been the perfect follow-up, asking how we forgive ourselves, and each other, in a world where we see monsters around every corner. Instead, it sacrifices punch for punch lines.
Several years have passed since the events of Happiness, and much has changed in the lives of the Jordan sisters. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is now married to Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), the compulsive obscene phone-caller who once harassed Joy’s sister Helen. Helen herself (Ally Sheedy) has taken her successful writing career to Hollywood screenwriting. And Trish (Allison Janney) has found a nice Jewish man (Michael Lerner). But the past is still haunting them: Trish’s ex-husband, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), a convicted child molester, has just been released from prison as middle child Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) prepares for his bar mitzvah, and Joy is visited repeatedly by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens), the suitor who once killed himself over her rejection.
It’s easy to view the re-casting of all the roles as a self-indulgent stunt, especially since Solondz seemed to have exhausted the notion in his 2004 “let’s have eight actors play the same character” experiment Palindromes. But there’s nothing inherently ridiculous about the idea that a different actor could provide a different take on how the passage of time has changed these characters. As indelible as Dylan Baker was in his Happiness performance as the tormented pederast Bill, Ciaran Hinds does fine work conveying the isolation of a man who realizes that he’s damned. Some of the casting revisions are ridiculous (the black Williams replacing Philip Seymour Hoffman as Allen); some are inspired (Reubens taking over for Jon Lovitz as Andy). Solondz even winks at the device by putting a poster for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There—in which multiple actors played Bob Dylan—on a dorm room wall in one scene. Smack down the execution, not the concept.
After all, if you’re in the mood for smacking down anything about Life During Wartime, it should be Solondz’ general disregard for taking these characters seriously. There’s certainly more of a dark-comedy feel to Wartime than there was to Happiness, which also isn’t inherently problematic—except that the gags involve behavior that makes it impossible to really feel for these people. Trish returns from a date with her new beau, and reveals to the barely pubescent Timmy that he made her “wet”; Helen isn’t merely a cartoon of movie-biz self-absorption, but is also having loud sex with Keanu Reeves. For every awkwardly honest moment, there are two or three that swat aside all pretense at subtle insight in favor of something that would earn a rimshot at a Catskills resort.
And it’s kinda heartbreaking, because there’s something interesting here that longs to muscle its way through the smugness. Solondz isn’t exactly subtle about his ideas—just as in Happiness, he has would-be songwriter Joy perform a title song that effectively spells out the thematic undercurrents—but it could have been compelling to wrestle with how much we’re willing to try to understand actions we find loathsome. Solondz, however, is too busy having a grade-schooler casually comment about her Klonopin prescription running out, or having Joy threaten Andy’s ghost with the spiked wings of an Emmy statuette. While Happiness may have included scenes of masturbation, it didn’t itself feel masturbatory. Life During Wartime plays at being about forgiving and forgetting, but it’s really just Solondz playing with himself.
LIFE DURING WARTIME
Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds