Like Kevin Smith, Todd Solondz has created his own universe of characters who interact from one film to the next. These are not sequels as much as they are investigations. For instance, Mark Wiener, the older brother from Welcome To the Dollhouse and the character who most resembles Todd Solondz physically and temperamentally, shows up in three of the five Solondz movies made since his first appearance. Mark never lasts long in the film, and usually says the exact same line, but the context is always dramatically different. In Welcome To the Dollhouse, Mark tries to help his sister deal with her unpopularity in school. In Palindromes, Mark tries to help Aviva realize that human relationships, and human love, are much more complicated than the grace she seeks. And in Life During Wartime, when a young man asks how to forgive and forget, Mark wonders aloud if anybody could ever forget, but not forgive. What makes people feel the need to forget when they’ve already decided to forgive?
Life During Wartime is about forgiveness. It is also about how dumb it is to forget what you’ve forgiven. If you don’t remember what you’ve forgiven, what’s the point?
Solondz’s film is a quasi-sequel to 1998’s Happiness. I call this particular film a sequel because it is, more or less, a continuation of the story from that film. Of course, the characters of other Solondz films make appearances throughout, but the bulk of the story is still centered around Joy’s many problems. Joy, now played by Shirley Henderson (of Moaning Myrtle fame) in an even more pathetic, childish manner than Jane Adams’s version of the character in the previous film, is a middle-aged optimist who cannot catch a break. After several failed relationships and losing a job helping imprisoned rapists sort out their lives, Joy decides to visit her sister, Trish, now played by Allison Janney, who lives in Florida. Which brings me to the most written about aspect of the movie.
Instead of casting the film with the same actors he used for Happiness, Solondz decided to recast all of the characters with new actors who could bring new life to the characters. In some cases, the actors don’t resemble the previous ones at all. For example, Dylan Baker’s red haired, pasty-faced, boring Bill Maplewood has been replaced by the tall, dark and handsome Ciaran Hinds. Jon Lovitz’s Andy has been replaced by Paul Reubens, who plays the role uncharacteristically straight. It is Reubens, strangely enough, who delivers the finest and most powerful performance in the entire film. Other odd choices abound in the film, most notably Ally Sheedy taking Lara Flynn Boyle’s spot from the previous film. Sheedy’s performance is the hammiest and most underwritten of the film, but I believe that fault lies more with the director not really knowing what to do with her than Sheedy’s talent.
Although Solondz’s films are classified as comedy, he has become famous for taking dark, disturbing subject matter and looking at it through sympathetic eyes. His characters often harbor dangerous secrets and strange habits that are often considered unforgivable or strange. However, Solondz has never dismissed a character because of their behavior. In fact, the kind of person most often abused in these films are the “normal” people. The people who shop for matching rugs and order incredibly specific salads are the ones under attack in these films. This is because Solondz sees these people as phonies. He believes that everybody has a darkness inside of them, and that those who do the judging are the most guilty of exerting this darkness.
Solondz often skirts the boundaries of tragedy and dark comedy, usually ending up somewhere in the middle. When Timmy, the son of a pedophile in Life During Wartime, tells his mom that the other kids at school call him a faggot because his father molested boys, his mother tells him that he is “not a faggot. [He] will never be a faggot as long as she is alive.” She says this to him in a protective, babying manner. It is like she is protecting him from some evil force that, if he isn’t looking, might take over. The scene is all at once funny and horrifying. The shooting style, mixed with the music, is reminiscent of early ’90’s sitcoms, but the dialogue itself is deeply disturbing.
Life During Wartime, while definitely a comedy, is by far Solondz’s most bleak affair. The characters in the film are exhausted by the world in which they live. They are tired of the war. They are tired of behaving the way their parents expect them to and the way society urges them to be. Joy is exhausted by the world’s cynicism and condescension toward her unique brand of optimism. While Happiness was about America’s search for happiness in a world full of sickness, Life During Wartime is about the difficulty of living in a country that is all about appearances. It is no longer enough to be happy for these characters. They want to be forgiven for who they are. They want to be accepted for their idiosyncrasies and loved because of them.
Life During Wartime is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.
I give the film 10/10 miscast Ally Sheedys.