What­ever doesn’t work

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Robert B. Ker For The New Mex­i­can

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

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