(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)
In Life During Wartime, writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest sojourn into the awkwardness and fragility of the demented human experience, we are brought up to speed on the characters that inhabited his 1998 indie film, Happiness. However, it’s not quite as simple as calling it a sequel.
In the 12 years since Happiness was released it’s become something of a mythic line in the sand amongst film fans, fanatic and casual alike. It is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film, with its supporters preaching it needs to be seen because of how fucked up and brilliant it is, while its detractors vocally and viciously deride it because of how fucked up and miserable it is.
The characters, even a decade plus later, are still stunted by their delusions and emotional walls, and as such tend to look more towards breaking even in life rather than getting ahead. Any thematic sense of a positive move forward the film possesses is shouldered handily by the youngest Maplewoodson, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, has learned his father is not actual dead, but an imprisoned pedophile and rapist. This news throws an abrupt and considerable – but not impassable – hurdle into his path towards manhood. For everyone else, it seems to have caused them to skew into an alternate 1998 and live imitation lives.
But this is likely Soldonz’s intent. As with his previous films, his characters are, in equal measures, loved and pitied by his camera. They are not quite easy to root for sad sacks as much as living, breathing wads of neuroses and baseness. But it’s tough to root against them either. Especially Joy.
Jane Adams is replaced by Shirley Henderson as Joy, the waifish songwriter and failed do-gooder. She is still a floundering mess trying to figure it out, but is now burdened by the specter of Andy (Paul Ruebens, not Jon Lovitz) haunting her neural space, still trying to get laid. In fact, every character is bodied by a different actor, adding to the absurdity of Solondz’s charm. While not offputting, it does set the film into more of a companion piece area than a sequel, but works despite these character facelifts.
But the most remarkable makeover is Bill Maplewood. If the saying “prison changes a man” ever came to life on screen, it would be here. Once the slight, effete suburban dad played by Dylan Baker, the kind of man you might imagine jumping up on a chair and shrieking upon seeing a mouse, the character is now a sturdy, serious man who might stomp on and eat the mouse played by Ciarán Hinds. His mission, somewhat oddly, is a noble mission. Not exactly redeeming one (there is no redemption for him, ever), but it is a good and necessary first step for such a malignant, fractured character.
While Wartime may end up in the discussion for worst film of the year by some, I find it hard to dismiss so easily. Yes, gone is the shock value of the fifties throwback American family man serially raping little children and the depravity and criminality of a lonely apartment complex. But to replace it, Solondz had to try and find real stories within his characters, and he does. And, more importantly, he succeeded.