Back in 1998, writer/director Todd Solondz introduced us to his uniquely dysfunctional trio of sisters and the grossly perverse men who orbited them in "Happiness." Twelve years later he revisits these characters, as well as his earlier "Welcome to the Dollhouse's" Weiner dad and son, all played by different actors and actresses in "Life During Wartime."
Todd Solondz has always made dark, black biting assessments of the human condition specializing in cruelty and perversity, but with "Life During Wartime," even though he is revisiting a pedophile, a couple of perverts and sisters comprised of a socially conscious doormat, a Stepford wife and a manipulative, condescending artiste, he seems to have lightened up a bit. With an in-your-face focus on forgiveness (or forgetting), Solondz still raises the ick factor, but this time around he's more laugh out loud funny.
Perfectly channeling the spirit of Jane Adams' performance, Shirley Henderson steps in as Joy Jordan, who, in the intervening years has married sad masturbating phone sex harasser Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams, "The Road," in the Philip Seymour Hoffman role), whose history seems to have become a whole lot worse. As the two celebrate their anniversary in a restaurant, seated at a banquette that shouts both African design (him) and hippie chic (her), Alan, who has a scar slashed diagonally across his face, promises 'no more cocaine, no more crack, no more crack cocaine, no more physical attacks...' the list goes on and on. Joy, who is trying to save the world from within the United States penal system, believes in her man, but the waitress who appears recognizes him and spits in his face. It appears he still indulges in some disgusting behavior 'on Sundays.' A shaken Joy retreats to mom Mona's (Renée Taylor in the Louise Lasser role) condo in Florida.
In another restaurant setting, Trish Maplewood (Allison Janney in the Cynthia Stevenson role) sits in a flowered dress wearing a diamond Jewish Chai necklace across from Harvey Weiner (Michael Lerner in the Bill Buell role). They are surrounded by red tulips and Trish is thrilled with his normality. They share an awkward kiss (she's taller and much slimmer than he) in the parking garage and she tells her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) at home that she is in love. Timmy is obsessed with his upcoming bar mitzvah and becoming a man, but is having difficulty reconciling new facts he has found out about his father, Bill Maplewood (Ciarán Hinds in the Dylan Baker role), whom he had been told was dead, and whom we see is just being released from prison.
In Florida, Joy sleepwalks to an empty restaurant where she is joined by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens in the Jon Lovitz role) wanting to make amends, but it all ends with harsh accusations. Unable to deal with Mona, Joy runs to Hollywood where it is clear her screenwriter sister Helen (Ally Sheedy in the Lara Flynn Boyle role) isn't too thrilled to see her despite the mixed message she delivers. Back in New Jersey, Bill finds his way to the empty Maplewood home, where his picture is clearly missing, and deduces eldest son Billy's whereabouts. He visits his shaken son in his Oregon college dorm to make sure that Billy has not inherited his pedophilia. But Billy is not the only one haunted by the deeds of his dad and Timmy's vetting of Harvey goes all wrong.
Solondz really knows how to make one recoil from the screen, but he always has his reasons. Early on, Trish tells Timmy that with just a touch, Harvey makes her 'wet all over.' She backpedals, but her inappropriateness confiding in her own sexuality is neatly paralleled with her squeamish in telling Timmy what male rape is, a lie which comes back to haunt her and perhaps Solondz's punishment for her inability to forgive her ex-husband. He includes a great running gag, paralleling her in her youngest, Chloe (Emma Hinz), already addicted to mommy's little helpers and taking karaoke lessons (that's karaoke, not singing, lessons, the Stepford aspect gleefully subtexted).
The filmmaker's sadistic behavior towards Joy is unrelenting, but her exposure to the depths of human depravity should have made her tougher, and, by film's end she finally stands up for herself when another ghost suggests she off herself to prove her love. When Harvey brings his son Mark (Rich Pecci in the Matthew Faber role) over to Trish's for dinner, a beautifully written conversation about how forgiveness works post 9/11 unfolds and Mark posits that sometimes it is better to forget than to forgive.
Solondz has assembled a good ensemble here. After casting both white and black actors to play the same character in his last film, 2004's "Palindromes" (which also featured the Weiners), the switch from white to black for Allen adds a soupcon of liberal white guilt to Joy's plate. And it is a joy to observe Michael Lerner really making a 'normal guy,' a 'mensch' out of Harvey without Solondz making some awful twist on the character. As his son, Pecci is weirdly relatable, a systems analyst who considers himself boring, unambitious, treading water. Solondz gives Sheedy a great speech to her sister which she makes hay with, criticizing Joy harshly under the guise of support (and one must snicker at references to her boyfriend 'Keanu').
Hinds is haunted as Bill and, in perhaps the film's best scene, is picked up by a stranger played by Charlotte Rampling ("Swimming Pool," "The Duchess"), a self described 'monster' who thinks that those who ask for forgiveness are losers. Great writing here and Rampling is chilling. Also solid is young Dylan Riley Snyder, whose expressive, freckled face and earnest demeanor makes him a great vehicle for the conflicted forgiveness pitcher demanding answers to very hard questions. As his older brother Billy, Chris Marquette is appropriately shell shocked and his scene with Hinds is another of the film's standouts. Kudos for casting Pee Wee Herman as the ghost of an exhibitionistic masturbator and Reubens for taking the role!
The film's art direction features those character-defining restaurant scenes, as well as Trish's flowered, color matched home, Mona's kitschy condo (South Beach sheets!), Bill's sickly yellow cheap hotel room and the history that can be read between Billy's childhood bedroom and his college dorm.
"Life During Wartime," not the Talking Heads song, but one with lyrics written by Solondz which is sung by Joy in the film, concludes on an oddly hopeful note and is Solondz's 'lightest' film to date, even as it tackles heavy issues. While it could probably be seen without having seen "Happiness," the experience will be much richer taking this film in as the sequel it is.
Robin gives "Life During Wartime" a C+.
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