Ciarán Hinds confronts his past as pedophile Bill Maplewood in Life During Wartime

(Note: the above 4-star rating is for Happiness and Life During Wartime taken together. On its own, Wartime gets 3)

Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness is a bitterly and excoriatingly funny tableau of human misery that runs out of steam as it becomes clear the filmmaker is more interested in testing the limits of his audience’s taste and patience than he is in offering illumination or enlightenment. His sorta-sequel Life During Wartime on the other hand substitutes some of the more willful Shock and Ugh of Happiness for the kind of introspection and-near empathy you might expect from a filmmaker 10 years on. The result is more reflective, but isn’t as sharp or as funny. Neither film is completely satisfying on its own, yet taken together they form a kind of symphony of suffering where the flaws of one are mended by the strengths of the other. If you liked Happiness, you must see Life During Wartime. If you hated the first film, you might find what you’re looking for with the latest. Either way, see the films as close together as possible.

The conceit of Life During Wartime is that it features many of the same characters from Happiness and even a couple from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but it’s set 5 or 6 years further on and features an entirely different set of actors. It opens with a mirror reflection of the opening of the first film. The music, setting, situation and even some of the props and dialogue are identical, but the characters have shifted and the actors playing them are completely different. Once again, Joy Jordan (played by Jane Adams in Happiness and here by Shirley Henderson) is ending a relationship at a restaurant. Instead of boyfriend Allen, it’s the obscene phone caller Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness and here played by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams). Little it seems has changed for Joy since we last saw her, but added to the burden of her daily existence is a crushing guilt personified by the ghost of Allen (now played by Paul Reubens) whose ultimate suicide she feels responsible for. Joy is one of the few genuinely decent characters in Solondz’s universe and she’s punished mightily for it.

While Joy continues to suffer, her sister Trish (Allison Janney) has exchanged her suburban bubble (burst in Happiness with the revelation that her husband was a pedophile) for a cocoon of prescription medication. Meanwhile, Joy’s other sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) takes solace in material comfort while their divorced mother (Louise Lasser) hides behind a wall of bitterness in her Miami retirement community.

Interestingly, it’s Trish’s husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) now released from prison who joins Joy as one of the few characters grappling with their past behavior. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness and he doesn’t seek to justify his actions, but he genuinely seems to want to repair some of the damage he knows he’s done, particularly to his son Billy, now in college and bearing the full brunt of his extended family’s malfunctions. Though Life During Wartime still wants to make you laugh and squirm (there’s a disturbingly adult post-date conversation between Trish and her younger son Timmy for example), it’s in the sad characters of Joy and Bill and Billy where the film shines. As the characters grapple with their pasts and futures, it’s almost as if Solondz is atoning for the trauma he forced them to endure for our (and his) entertainment in the first place. The sense that Solondz feels for his characters (and that we should too) is the one element that was missing from the original film and its inclusion here makes Happiness better in retrospect. Interesting too that one of the working titles of the film was Forgiveness.

Like Happiness before it, Life During Wartime is the kind of film that only works if the actors are unselfconsciously committed to their characters and they portray them as though nothing in the world is out of the ordinary. Everyone here gets it. What’s more, with the exception of Williams who feels oddly out of place, each actor manages to recall the previous performance while striking out firmly into his or her own territory. The result is an eerie sense of sameness tinged with the unfamiliar.

It’s difficult to say whether Wartime works by itself or even whether it should. Though the actors are different, Solondz clearly draws the connections between the two films and large chunks of the sequel depend on your knowledge of its prequel. Suffice it to say that, taken by themselves, I’d give Happiness 3 1/2 stars and Wartime 3 while together they’re worth 4.

Life During Wartime. USA 2010. Written and directed by Todd Solondz. Cinematography by Edward Lachman. Music supervision by Doug Bernheim. Edited by Kevin Messman. Starring Shirley Henderson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Dylan Snyder, Ciaran Hinds, Renee Taylor, Paul Reubens, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy and Louise Lasser. 1 hour 37 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 3 stars (out of 5) alone, 4 together with Happiness.

2 Responses to “Life During Wartime (2010)”

  1. Thanks for the well written review Craig. Happiness worked even better for me – I had no sense of it running out of steam. You make the sequel (of sorts) sound fascinating and it promises to be a terrific complement.

  2. As I’ve said before I was taken by Happiness the first time, but the 2nd time it seemed like there was little behind the laughs. The 3rd time it was the same way, but I liked this new element Wartime brought.

    I have a feeling it won’t deliver for you the same way Happiness did, there’s a bit of a “been there done that” feeling, but hopefully the new layer will add something for you.

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