Filmgoers who like their comedy so dark that they might forget to laugh will delight in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime—an uncomfortable, if not downright unpleasant, sequel of sorts to his Happiness (1998). I say “of sorts” because none of the characters appears to be played by the same actor and it wisely doesn’t matter if you’ve seen Happiness (I haven’t) in order to understand Life During Wartime or to “get it.” The question that arises is whether or not you’ll want to. This is a good film—not, I think, a great one—but it’s quite apt to be off-putting to some viewers.
I admit I am by no means an expert on Solondz’s work. I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), but that was so long ago that it hardly matters. However, I will say that my feelings after watching Dollhouse were similar to those I have about Wartime: I didn’t exactly enjoy the film while I was watching it, but its cumulative effect was peculiarly moving. And in the case of this latest effort—which is fresh in my mind—I certainly admired the craftsmanship that went into unifying a fairly scattered, multicharacter narrative. Some of it is visual patterning (think tulips). Some of it is thematic consistency. Both conspire to make the film finally feel like a single piece.
In some respects—from my non-Solondz-savvy point of view—the film reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), but without that film’s density or brilliance. In other respects—notably the dream or fantasy scenes where Joy (Shirley Henderson) encounters the ghosts of suicides—it had something of a David Lynch air about it, and by that I mean the late period Lynch of Inland Empire (2006). These comparisons, however, only convey some small sense of tone, since Wartime is finally its own animal—for better or worse.
It’s probably pointless to attempt to summarize the plot, which more or less focuses on three sisters: Trish (Allison Janney), Helen (Ally Sheedy) and Joy. But the film is as much about the people in their lives as it is about them. The most developed story concerns Trish, her shot at a new life with Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), her relationships with her children—especially 13-year-old Timmy (newcomer Dylan Riley Snyder)—and the specter of her ex-husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), a convicted pedophile just released from prison. One of the central dramas here concerns the process of lying to children in order to “protect them.” Having told Timmy that his father is dead leaves him unprepared to deal with the truth, while her simultaneously sanitized and alarmist explanation of homosexuality sets the stage for the destruction of her own happiness.
But this isn’t a film that’s about plot. It’s a film about the search for connectivity between people, about the need for forgiveness, about the need for redemption—and about the aching longing for these things by people who have no idea how to attain them or to offer them to others. Some of it is bitterly funny (a discussion about terrorists, for example). Some of it is just plain bitter. However, there’s some sense of hopefulness when all is said and done, but whether it will be enough for many viewers is another matter. If you do see it, though, watch the scene at the car very closely—the whole frame—between Timmy and Harvey’s son, Mark (Rich Pecci), who has Asperger’s syndrome. Rated R for strong sexual content, brief nudity and language, including some disturbing dialogue.