Whatever doesn’t work
Life During Wartime, drama, rated R, CCA Cinematheque, 2.5 chiles Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness plays like a dark version of a Woody Allen film: it is a mannered, intelligent, and patient reflection on urbanites pursuing love in mostly the wrong places. While Allen’s films generally deal with college professors and burned-out authors, Solondz asks us to sympathize with a pedophile and features a climax in which a young boy experiences his first, well, climax. While Allen’s dialogue rolls off the tongue like music, Solondz pushes his capable actors to convey uncomfortable, unnatural dialogue. The film is highly unpleasant, but pleasantly so.
Life During Wartime, a sequel to Happiness, is more of the same. The title cards are introduced tastefully, as if printed on a menu at a fine restaurant. It’s a fitting touch, as the film features several scenes in which the characters sit in restaurants and pore over menus. What they want in life is perfectly clear — see the title of that 1998 film — but the point Solondz drives home is that what you desire isn’t always on the menu you’ve been handed, and you often have to settle for something else. In the case of these characters, what they opt for in lieu of happiness is simple forgiveness and a sense of contentment.
From the opening scene, it’s clear that this is not an ordinary sequel. Perhaps following a narrative device from his last feature, 2004’s Palindromes
— in which multiple actors portrayed the protagonist, Aviva — Solondz has overhauled the cast of Happiness with all new actors in the same roles. The ironically named Joy, played by Jane Adams in the first film, is here portrayed by Shirley Henderson.
As we begin the film, she sits at a table with Allen, the character so memorably played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness. Here, in an inspired if head-scratching casting decision, the role is filled by Michael K. Williams (forever famous for playing Omar on The Wire). Allen has done his share of wrongs — well beyond the creepy crank calls of the first film — and begs for her forgiveness and the opportunity for a new beginning. The word “happy,” mentioned several times in the first few minutes, is an intangible word that doesn’t ring true on their tongues. When the waitress comes, Allen asks to hear the specials. He gets a drink thrown in his face.
Elsewhere, Joy’s sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson in the original; Allison Janney here) has relocated to Florida. Her ex-husband, the pedophile Bill (first Dylan Baker, now Ciarán Hinds), is just getting out of prison, but Trish has told her younger children — most notably to the story, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) — that he died. He’s dead to Trish: she now has a promising new love named Harvey (Michael Lerner) in her life. It’s a tough sell to Timmy, however, as she first navigates an awkward conversation about how Harvey’s very touch turns her on and then later explains, at Timmy’s urging, what a pedophile does to a young boy.
The other major plot features Bill’s life after prison, as he first checks in on his family and then makes an ill-advised trip to see his oldest son at college. The scenes with Hinds are generally compelling. The actor cuts a hulking, intimidating, yet deeply unhappy presence, which often reminded me of a highly medicated version of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. His hotel-bar encounter with a desperate and monstrous older woman, played beautifully by Charlotte Rampling, is one of the film’s crown jewels.
While this kind of material will scare away many audience members, I am not one of them: I happen to enjoy movies that make me squirm. With that goal in mind, Life During Wartime —
No warm puppy: Ally Sheedy