Movie review: 'Life During Wartime' has fun with tragedy
Most critics take notes while watching movies, the better not to forget their pithiest thoughts when it’s time to write the review. Here are a couple I jotted down at a screening of “Life During Wartime.” “Am I supposed to be laughing? This is about suicide and pedophilia and all kinds of really sad, confused people. Why am I laughing?”
There’s nothing actually funny about the film. It’s a look at extremely dysfunctional modern American families and romantic relationships gone bad and various people who, no matter how hard they try, can’t cope with the cards they’ve been dealt. Then the script goes further and starts wondering how the sins of mothers and fathers might later affect their sons and daughters.
Not funny. Yet there I was, laughing. A bit nervously, to be sure, but right out loud, maybe at the over-the-top darkness of it all.
“Life During Wartime” is the newest in a refreshingly (and disturbingly) offbeat series of films by Todd Solondz, a true auteur who also made “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness.” And it’s a follow-up to 1998’s “Happiness.” Some will call it a sequel to that film, which covered three dissimilar sisters, lots of emotional mistakes, and zeroed in on a man fighting a losing battle with inner demons.
But it sure doesn’t follow any traditions of sequels. It probably takes place about 10 years after the original film. But some of the characters have only aged five years, while others have probably gone closer to 15. One character named Allen was white in the original (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) but is now black (played by Michael K. Williams). That’s weird enough, but Solondz seems to be taking everything as far as possible in this film. Almost all of the characters from “Happiness” (along with a couple from “Dollhouse”) are back, but not one of them is played by the actor who played them before.
The heartbreakingly sad Andy (originally Jon Lovitz) comes across as even more sullen courtesy of Paul Reubens. The original’s pedophile – brilliantly played by Dylan Baker to give the character some sympathy due to his sickness controlling him – has been released back into society with dead eyes showing no hope, played with equal brilliance by Ciaran Hinds.
The multiple stories here touch on the three sisters – one chatty and pill-addled (Allison Janney), one flummoxed (Shirley Henderson), one self-centered (Ally Sheedy) – who have followed very different paths; on finding love at a late age (Janney and Michael Lerner); on a desperate woman (Charlotte Rampling in a daring performance) who’s unafraid to tell new men in her life that she’s a monster; and on a young boy (Dylan Riley Snyder) who discovers that his father isn’t dead after all, but he’s been in jail for a decade for committing unspeakable acts.
There’s one character with a very active imagination who, like Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” sees, and has discussions with, dead people. Another one has spent the time between the two films trying to erase every memory of his past, while another – who is one of those memories – is trying to make sure that past won’t be repeated. A little girl worries over running out of her supply of antidepressants, but her mom offers one from her own supply.
“Happiness” was a wrenching film that pulled no punches, but also had plenty of black humor. “Life During Wartime” maintains a grim mood, but is, in many ways, gentler to most of its characters and a little easier to watch.
Do you have to see “Happiness” in order to get “Life During Wartime?” No, the film stands on its own, with every situation clearly explained. But if you have seen the first one, watching this one will push buttons you didn’t know you had. And it will be enjoyed – make that appreciated – more on many different levels. If you haven’t seen it, I’d strongly advise finding the DVD before checking out the new one. It’ll add to the experience, you’ll understand more about the mind of Todd Solondz, and you might even laugh.
LIFE DURING WARTIME (Not rated, includes violence, graphic language, frank sexual talk) Written and directed by Todd Solondz With Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ciaran Hinds, Renee Taylor, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, Shirley Henderson Grade: 4 stars out of 4.