With "Life During Wartime," Todd Solondz revisits his characters from 1998's "Happiness," but he doesn't reveal much that's new about them — or his world view.
People are monsters, whether they live in suburban New Jersey or suburban Florida. As writer and director, Solondz looks for the humanity within them — his preferred method is to matter-of-factly depict their alienation without a shred of pathos — but they're still monsters nonetheless. There's a lot of repetitious talk about forgiving and forgetting, and debate over which is preferable, but Solondz doesn't seem particularly interested in either.
Fears and regrets linger. Crimes never truly fade into the past. Everyone stays the same, even though Solondz has replaced the cast of "Happiness" with all new actors here; he's even inserted a couple of characters from 1995's "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which is still his best film. A gimmick, as in "Palindromes" (2004), where he had eight different performers playing the same role? Perhaps. But it's intriguing to see the various shadings these actors might bring. And so Philip Seymour Hoffman's obscene phone caller is now played by Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from "The Wire"), who's black. Jon Lovitz is now Paul Reubens, which seems fitting given the characters' own dark, troubled pasts.
Still there's a detached nature to the most shocking words and deeds, which frequently makes "Life During Wartime" feel almost like a parody of a Solondz film. But at the same time, the deadpan delivery of lacerating dialogue remains a reliable source of uncomfortable comedy. Solondz once again reveals himself as a master of wringing laughs from the most awkward situations.
Relationships go nowhere
A single mother comes home from a blind date and gushes about it to her preteen son in an inppropriately adult way. Neither of them flinches at her description, but we do. Later she will cheerfully share antidepressants from her medicine cabinet with her young daughter. And as sisters sit down for lunch, the passive-aggressive digs they trade might make you cringe, just because they're so universally recognizable.
The Jordan sisters of "Happiness" have left New Jersey for Florida, effectively depicted by cinematographer Edward Lachman as a humid, faded wasteland. Trish (Allison Janney) is raising her three kids alone, since her psychiatrist husband, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), has been in prison for the past decade for child molestation. A blind date with the kind but troll-like Harvey Weiner (Michael Lerner) — Dawn's father from "Welcome to the Dollhouse" — gives her hope for a new romance. But her son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who's preparing for his bar mitzvah yet already considers himself the man of the house, grills Harvey in ways that will make you squirm.
The skittish Joy (Shirley Henderson) comes to visit her after a weird break-up with her husband, Allen (Williams), a man she's stuck by despite his history of depravity. (The no-nonsense litany of his many transgressions at the film's start is a hoot.) And Helen (Ally Sheedy, great in just one scene), who's bitter and brittle despite her success as a Hollywood screenwriter, has no time to coddle the needy Joy. Instead, Joy seeks solace from the haunting images of her deceased ex-boyfriend, Andy (Reubens). Their exchanges provide the film with some much-needed sweetness.
Other individual scenes stand out, namely the straightforward way Charlotte Rampling's character picks up Bill at a hotel bar for a one-night stand. The moment Solondz reveals her, sitting elegantly by herself, might make you catch your breath. Like the rest of the film, their relationship goes nowhere, but it'll at least shake you up briefly.