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Dustin Putman

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Life During Wartime  (2010)
2 Stars
Directed by Todd Solondz.
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds, Dylan Riley Snyder, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Chris Marquette, Michael Lerner, Rich Pecci, Charlotte Rampling, Renee Taylor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gaby Hoffmann, Emma Hinz.
2010 – 96 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of an R rating for strong sexual content and nudity, and for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 26, 2010.
If 1998's "Happiness" was a big, bold, bracing, controversial tapestry of interconnected lives falling apart and struggling to find contentment in suburban New Jersey, then Todd Solondz's comparatively low-key, Miami-set sequel, "Life During Wartime," serves as a footnote, picking things up six or seven years down the road to see where the same characters have ended up. In a creative decision that similarly recalls 2005's "Palindromes," where a revolving door of different actors were cast to play the lead role, writer-director Solondz has auspiciously recast every part from "Happiness." His aims aren't as wide here, his storylines less loaded, his characters—from a pedophile, to a sexually obscene phone caller, to a divorced mother so starved for attention from the opposite sex she's almost willing to give up her own kids for it—a little wiser, having already faced the bitter music of their actions and destroyed lives in the process. Now they must attempt to make amends—an act easier said than done—with people who still haven't figured out if it would be easier for them to forgive or simply forget altogether.

The Jordan sisters have escaped the Garden State for the bright, warm weather of the Sunshine State, but this change in locale hasn't exactly done them many favors. When husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) confesses that he has been unable to keep his sexual perversions at bay, do-gooder Joy (Shirley Henderson) attempts to get away from it all, first visiting lonely mother Mona (Renee Taylor), then self-medicating eldest sister Trish (Allison Janney), then self-absorbed author-turned-screenwriter middle sister Helen (Ally Sheedy). Haunted by the ghost of ex-boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide shortly after she broke up with him, Joy is at a crossroads between her continuing desire to be a virtuous person and the possibly acidic truth that she truly is destined to failure, creating misery wherever she goes. As Trish engages in an intense relationship with Harvey (Michael Lerner), her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) prepares for his bar mitzvah while struggling with the discovery that father Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is not dead, but in prison for child molestation. What he doesn't know is that Bill has just been released from lock-up, determined to find oldest son Billy (Chris Marquette), now away at college, and try to make things right. It's not that easy.

At 139 minutes, "Happiness" was a sprawling look at a troubled grown family and the misfits that surrounded them. As black as coal but also uncompromisingly acerbic in its twisted humor, the film won acclaim but made equal waves on its path to release, the picture's sexual frankness and seeming empathy toward a pedophile getting under certain people's skin. At a notably briefer 96 minutes, "Life During Wartime" is less buzz-worthy and subjectively explicit, tonally more serious but not without writer-director Todd Solondz's trademark ruthless brand of comedy peeking around the edges. What's here is superb, but there's not enough of it; over in a flash without the chance to satisfactorily explore all of the characters that were better-developed in "Happiness," the film does not feel like a complete whole so much as an extended tease. It is almost as if Solondz is at a loss for what to do with these people he had so lovingly set up twelve years earlier, in turn making the case for why this continuation might not have been particularly necessary.

As uneven as the narrative is, "Life During Wartime" fascinates and affects just as it should. The harsh, at times inappropriate, honesty in the characters' interplay is delightfully uncomfortable. Trish thinks nothing at first of coming home and telling her pre-teen son about how the mere touch of suitor Harvey gets her wet. In the throws of ecstasy, she talks about abandoning her kids outright before promptly taking it all back in the following scene. Meanwhile, Trish's ex-husband Bill, a newly free man, tracks his family down but doesn't know how to go about facing them. A scene where he reconnects with them after sneaking into Trish's home when they are all gone is quietly compelling, speaking about how time has gone on without him, as it must. Particularly drawn to oldest son Billy, Bill explores his bedroom and, despite being penniless, opts not to snatch the cash he spots on his dresser. After all, he's already taken enough from the poor child.

The cast is stupendous, even if the ensemble as a whole have less to do than the original actors who essayed these parts. Nonetheless, the new ones frequently appear to be channeling the previous performer who stomped on the same ground. With her baby-doll voice and a look that appears to forever be on the verge of tears, Shirley Henderson (2006's "Marie Antoinette") is a wonderful Joy, lovable even as those around her treat her like she's the cause of all their problems. Joy can't seem to win, and Henderson finds both the comedy and the pathos in her scenes. The same could be said of Allison Janney (2009's "Away We Go"), brave and tragicomic as Trish, a pill in her medicine cabinet for every occasion; Charlotte Rampling (2008's "Babylon A.D."), full of want and self-loathing as Jacqueline, an older woman Bill meets in a bar and shares a queasy post-coital moment with; Ally Sheedy (1998's "High Art"), so calmly pompous as Helen that she'll never hope to be able to understand the rest of her family; and Paul Reubens (2007's "Reno 911!: Miami") as Andy, who harbors deep wounds and a hang-up for Joy even in death.

"Life During Wartime" does, indeed, revisit its "Happiness" characters to see what they've been up to in the interim, but is anything it says or shows eye-opening? Not really, but maybe that's the point. They're all still stuck in their ways, parts of their lives having changed but they themselves staying mostly the same as they struggle to figure out life and grab a little happiness from it, too. When Bill finally tracks down Billy at college and tries to convey to him how sorry he is, their encounter is appropriately anticlimactic, full of pain and regret without either person understanding there is probably no future for them as a father and son. In some instances, once the damage is done, it cannot be reversed. Ciaran Hinds (2010's "The Eclipse") and Chris Marquette (2009's "Race to Witch Mountain") play this critical scene to the hilt without the need to let their emotions get the best of them; one can sense what is running just underneath the surface of their words to each other. In comparison, because middle child Timmy was too young to be personally impacted by Bill's arrest all those years ago, he is at first angry and then curious about the parent who is now a stranger to him. In the film's final moments, Timmy's tearful plea for a love, an acceptance, a normalcy he may never know is devastating. "I don't care about freedom and democracy," he cries, "I just want my father." In the grand scheme of things, isn't that kind of what it's all about?
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman