Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime
Director: Todd Solondz
Adaptation: Todd Solondz
Stars: Allison Janney (Trish), Shirley Henderson (Joy), Ally Sheedy (Helen), Dylan Riley Snyder (Timmy), Ciarán Hinds (Bill), Michael Lerner (Harvey Wiener), Chris Marquette (Billy), Michael Kenneth Williams (Allen), Paul Reubens (Andy), Charlotte Rampling (Jacqueline), Rich Pecci (Mark Wiener)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2010
Country: U.S.
Life During Wartime Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Life During WartimeIn Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz revisits the extended family of dysfunctional characters that populated his 1998 film Happiness, a controversial dark comedy that cemented Solondz’s status, following his 1996 breakthrough film Welcome to the Dollhouse, as one of America’s most unique and incisive cinematic voices, not to mention one of the most daring. The debate over whether Solondz is an acerbic wit, a miserable misanthrope, or some strange combination continues to rage, and Life During Wartime, like each of his new films, provides plenty of fodder for both his admirers and his detractors: Is it a tough, but ultimately humane social satire or an angry denunciation of human existence? The dialectic of his cinema is best summarized in a scene in Happiness in which a condescending character tells her sad younger sister, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you,” to which the sister replies, genuinely confused, “But I’m not laughing.”

Solondz’s admirers, myself included, will tend to highlight the complex tonal shifts that make his films so consistently fascinating. Few directors are able to move from stark drama to dark comedy with such dexterity, and few screenwriters have even close to the handle he has on dialogue and the way it can subtly and economically reveal great character depths. His detractors will likely focus on the fact that Solondz continues to mine incendiary material in a way that suggests he is a provocateur for the sake of provocation, with little to offer beyond the initial shock value. That was certainly the core of criticism of Happiness, which featured all manner of deviant human behavior, including the great taboo of modern taboos: pedophilia. Of course, Solondz wasn’t content to merely feature a pedophile, but instead chose to make him a complicated character and ask of the audience some degree of empathy.

It has been 12 years since Happiness was first released to both acclaim and condemnation, and perhaps as a means of conveying the passage of time, Solondz has made the daring decision to recast all of the characters. This has the immediate effect of making Life During Wartime feel like more of a stand-alone film than a sequel, which it certainly is (there is no need to see Happiness in order to understand what happens in Life, although those who have seen the previous film will obviously have a different viewing experience). The new actors, many of whom bear absolutely no physical resemblance to the actors who played the roles a dozen years earlier, seem to have been chosen primarily because they embody in some way or another the characters’ emotional terrain. So, even though we are denied the pleasure of seeing familiar faces moving through the expanded narrative landscape, the casting is nevertheless effective.

The location has also been changed radically from New Jersey to southern Florida, where most of the extended family has moved. Once again, the interlocking narratives involve three very different, now middle-aged sisters: Trish (Allison Janney, taking over for Cynthia Stevenson), a suburban mother who is finally becoming romantically involved again after her husband was sent to prison for raping their young son’s friend; Joy (Shirley Henderson replacing Jane Adams), the meek youngest sister who is still drawn to damaged men and is unable to get her life in any kind of balance; and Helen (Ally Sheedy replacing Lara Flynn Boyle), who has achieved significant financial success as a screenwriter, but is just as miserable as the rest of her family. The film’s opening sequence is a déjà vu echo of the opening sequence in Happiness: We see Joy at the same restaurant having a difficult dinner with a significant other. In the first film, she was in the midst of dumping a loser boyfriend played by Jon Lovitz, who has since committed suicide and now haunts her as a ghost played by Paul Reubens. This time she is having a strained anniversary dinner with her troubled husband Alan, who was originally played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and is now played by Michael Kenneth Williams. These sequences are perfect distillations of Solondz’s approach to difficult material, mixing blunt honesty with sharp dialogue and pitch-perfect moments of awkward humor that offer but the slightest respite from the pain on-screen.

Much of the story in Life During Wartime focuses on Trish, who is seriously involved with Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), a dumpy divorcee to whom she is deeply attracted primarily because he seems “normal,” even though his twentysomething son Mark (Rich Pecci) is a brooding lunk with no social skills and an unhealthy obsession with China. Trish, who longs for normality and is played by Allison Janney with a hidden desperation that makes her sad even when she seems happiest, has kept the truth about her pedophilic husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) from her preteen son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who is on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. Timmy (as the Eisenhower-era name would suggest) is the film’s innocent, a wide-eyed child who is slowly moving into the world of adulthood and all of its awful truths, including the ones about his father, who has just been released from prison and skulks about the edges of the story like some kind of grim reaper (the physical difference between Hands and Dylan Baker, who originally played the character, are disturbing in their suggestion that the character is far from reformed, but rather more damaged and dangerous than ever). Solondz is clearly fascinated with Bill and all that he represents, primarily the dark, ugly, unacceptable urges that must be repressed. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, he has a one-night stand with a refined, callous older woman (Charlotte Rampling) who is a self-proclaimed “monster,” suggesting that we don’t have to dig very deep into society’s surface to find the underbelly.

Revisiting characters in new surroundings a decade later is a dicey proposition, but in its own way, Life During Wartime works extremely well, especially in the way its challenging material is contrasted by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman’s bright, sunny cinematography, which captures southern Florida in all its gaudy, inferno-ice-cream-colored splendor. Given the title, references to terrorism and 9/11 are kept conspicuously to a minimum, even as the idea of conflict structures virtually everything in the film, which makes its explicit focus on the nature of forgiveness so difficult to grasp, for both the viewer and the characters on screen. Is forgiveness always possible, and does it even matter, or is it somehow beyond the province of humanity, a very Woody Allen-at-his-most-existential/religious kind of question.

However good though it may be, it is hard not to compare Life to Happiness, which still represents (and possibly always well represent) Solondz’s acerbic art at its most effective. The two films are strikingly similar in tone even if their settings and actors are extremely different, and everything that works in Life simply worked a little better in Happiness. It isn’t hard to see why Solondz would want to come back to these characters, and perhaps he will again in another decade or so, at which point some of them may have finally found some peace. But don’t bet on it.

Life During Wartime Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray
Life During Wartime is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Audio Q&A with director Todd Solondz in which he responds to viewers’ questions
  • “Actors’ Reflections” featurette
  • Video interview with cinematographer Ed Lachman
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic David Sterritt
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 26, 2011

    Life During Wartime was shot digitally in 4K on the RED One Digital Camera, so the image on Criterion’s Blu-Ray is a direct digital port from the original .r3d RED files under the supervision of cinematographer Ed Lachman. There have been some complaints about the film’s look, specifically that it is too gaudy and blown-out at times and that skin tones don’t look entirely natural, but given the direct digital port, that is clearly how Lachman intends for it to look (it is also a result of the limitations of the RED One camera, at least in its initial release). Nevertheless, the bright, sharp image has great clarity, and I feel that the slightly unnatural look it produces works well with the material. The clean, well-rendered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack is also a fully digital port from the original digital audio master files. There isn’t a lot of work in the surround channels since the film is so dialogue-driven, but it is effective in creating subtle aural ambiance.
    The Blu-Ray supplements include “Ask Todd,” a 45-minute audio Q&A with director Todd Solondz in which he responds to more than 20 questions submitted by viewers. The questions range in depth and quality from the fascinating to the obvious, and Solondz addresses them all thoroughly, thus providing a good amount of insight into both the film and his career as a whole. A half-hour featurette titled “Actors’ Reflections” gives us new interviews with Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, and Michael Kenneth Williams, as well as on-set footage. Cinematographer Ed Lachman discusses his work on the film in a new 10-minute video interview, and he also offers screen-specific commentary on half a dozen scenes and answers several viewer questions. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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