Todd Solondz may be one of the most polarizing American directors working today. His films are provocative and feature many taboo themes, such as incest and child molestation. Like his most recent films, Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz' previous films have been fixtures on the film festival circuit and are usually screened amid controversy. In 1995 his first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was released and it may be the most accessible of his five films. It is a coming-of-age story about an extremely unpopular young girl (played by Heather Matarazzo in her breakthrough role). Happiness, his 1998 follow-up, was given an NC-17 rating and was refused admission to the Sundance Film Festival, where Welcome to the Dollhouse had been awarded the Grand Jury Prize. Life During Wartime is its sequel. Happiness is a fantastic film that is as brilliantly hilarious as it is painfully uncomfortable. Every single role has been recast for Life During Wartime, which could have been disastrous were it not for the extremely talented actors. Life During Wartime is just as inventive and provocative as Happiness because Todd Solondz is adept at blurring the line between uncomfortable and funny and that makes Life During Wartime a worthy sequel to Happiness.
The film revolves around the lives of three sisters, Helen, Trish and Joy, who were originally played by Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson and Jane Adams. Trish (Allison Janney) is busy raising three kids and living her Florida. Her ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds, originally Dylan Baker) has just been released from prison after being convicted of child molestation (a major storyline in Happiness). She has told her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) that his father is dead. Joy vis taking a break from her husband Allen (The Wire's Michael K. Williams, originally Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and visits Trish then soon begins having visions of her former lover Andy (Paul Reubens, originally Jon Lovitz). Helen (Ally Sheedy) appears very briefly in the film. She lives in California and is dating Keanu Reeves. Unbeknownst to Trish Bill travels across the country to visit their eldest son Billy (Chris Marquette) who is at college in Oregon. Trish is the central figure in Life During Wartime. She has begun a relationship with Harvey (Michael Lerner) and it is thrown into jeopardy when Timmy learns the truth about his father.
Part of what makes Todd Solondz' films so uncomfortable is the camera that slowly pans the room before focusing in on the character. His actions may be slow but they are deliberate. Happiness is not necessarily the kind of film that required a sequel but by recasting every character the audience is given a new layer to deconstruct. Life During Wartime is certainly more enjoyable if you have seen Happiness. He is able to deftly blend uncomfortable situations with humour and that is why Life During Wartime is more than just a film that challenges your views and your patience. His characters are often unsympathetic people with few redeeming qualities but Life During Wartime looks for acceptance and forgiveness within its character. It is a more mature film than Storytelling (2001) and Palindromes (2004) which were explicit and provocative. Todd Solondz is not for everyone and there are probably more people that will hate his work than love it. I have always been impressed by his audacity and bold approach to filmmaking. These characters have grown and evolved since Happiness and so has Todd Solondz.
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.