Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness unsettled audiences in a way few movies can. It was disturbing and exhilarating and funny and sad and everything that a great movie should be. Each individual scene oozed with an artistry that few directors could bring to such distasteful material and dysfunctional characters that do unsympathetic things, but somehow Solondz inspires empathy for them, like Peter Lorre in M. The sequel to Happiness has just been released and though I think it’s a pretty good picture it doesn’t reach the same level of sharp originality or giddy nauseousness the original delivered.
Where Happiness felt organic and unique, Life during Wartime often buckles under the weight of its own conceits; we feel the hand of the author manipulating familiar terrain. We feel Solondz trying, something I don’t remember ever sensing while watching Happiness. All the gags that came so naturally come off here as too calculated. The opening scene is almost entirely the same as the opening scene between Joy and her then boyfriend Andy in Happiness, a fact that awestruck Joy does not fail to mention to her husband Allen (Michael K. Williams). The details that repeat between the two scenes come off as quite clever and we chuckle along as Joy relives that horrible night with Andy. Allen even gives Joy the same pewter ashtray that Andy gave her; Allen says he found it on Ebay. There is a surreal tone to the scene that works as a joke for people who have seen the previous movie, but unfortunately that tone doesn’t go away. The surrealistic (maybe hyper-realistic) tone distances us from the material and the characters. We can never connect because we never feel like these are accurate representations of anyone we know in life. This stands in stark contrast to the disconcerting reality the first one gave us: we know most pedophiles look like Bill Maplewood, not those leering bogeymen that populated our childhood nightmares. In contrast most of the characters in Life during Wartime are cartoonish representations of people.
The successful parts of the movie lie mostly with the job of the cast. Though I prefer most of the actors who played the original parts (one exception is Michael K. Williams taking over Philip Seymour Hoffman’s part), there are some fine performances that are let down by the lack of direction in the script. Shirley Henderson plays the physically meek and emotionally timid Joy, lurking around as though she was afraid of being noticed and quietly taking tentative stands only to be slapped down by her more vocal sisters. It’s a shame the script doesn’t allow her to develop past what we see in the first scene. She’s still apologizing for voicing her opinions and for being wronged. Every time she suggests someone hurt her, they immediately turn it around and compel her to apologize to them. Despite the absence of an arc, Henderson brings the right amount of introversion tinged with simmering courage bubbling just beneath the surface.
Another success is Allison Janney’s performance as Joy’s sister Trish. If you remember Trish was Bill Maplewood’s wife and in the past 12 years has been rebuilding her life and the lives of her children after Bill was sent to prison for raping two young boys. Trish believes the best way to deal with a problem is to ignore it. She told her younger children, Chloe and Timmy (who is preparing for his bar mitzvah), that their father was dead, rather than have them deal with the reality of what he did. Of course it comes out that he is alive and Timmy has uncomfortable questions for Trish. How, for instance, does a man rape a man? Instead of answering the question directly she gives him a vague and uninformative speech about how a man should never touch him. Timmy walks away from that discussion with a very understandable misunderstanding about what homosexual rape means leading to a too predictable (and not very believable) misunderstanding. But this is how Trish negotiates the world around her; she cuts off and doesn’t reflect on (with the aid of lots of medication) the things that make her uncomfortable.
The subject that makes her feel most uncomfortable is, of course, her ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who is released from prison at the beginning of the picture. He travels to Florida where Trish now lives, hoping to catch a glimpse of them and maybe find out where their older son, Billy is at college. Timmy and Chloe don’t remember him, but he had a relationship with Billy. He wants to talk to him, to make sure he is OK and doesn’t have an affinity for children like his father. Hinds is tougher than Dylan Baker who played the same part in Happiness. Baker was more bookish, more refined. After 12 years of prison, Hinds exits with experience and pain etched on his face. He wanders around the frame haunted not by what he has done – that is behind him – but what he knows he still can and probably will do again. He admits to struggling with his urges, a struggle that will continue his entire life. Solondz works wonders when Bill finally finds Billy and we watch with a mixture of dread and hope as a young man grapples with wanting back a father he hates and fears. Scenes like this are where Solondz it at his best.
There are also several great supporting performances most notably Michael Lerner as Trish’s new suitor, Paul Rubens as the ghost of Joy’s past boyfriend Andy, and Charlotte Rampling as Bill’s one night stand. Also Michael K. Williams nails the tone of his tortured and lonely character: his first scene in the restaurant with Joy is one of the best of the picture.
One of the weaker acting jobs is by Ally Sheedy as the third sister Helen. Now living in Los Angeles, she is a successful screenwriter. As in the original, she is thoughtless and arrogant. Lara Flynn Boyle originated the part and played her with more depth and, frankly, understanding. Admittedly the part is written flimsily but Sheedy adds nothing too it. The character is so phony that she isn’t credible even for a social satire such as this. Some people may be as self-absorbed and clueless about the world around them, but an actor playing the part has to bring something else to the table. She needed to be more subtle and, truthfully, more likeable. I think of how Vincent Kartheiser brought Peter Campbell to life in Mad Men: a man who craves the approval of his peers, laying on thick amounts of insincere charm, but lashing out when he doesn’t get it. Sheedy’s Helen needed more of the charm that Kartheiser gives Pete.
Yes, this is a half-hearted recommendation. If you admired Happiness you will probably enjoy much of this movie. (And, if you hated it, don’t see it.) Solondz bashes us over the head with his themes about forgiveness, but he also skimps on adding anything substantial about these characters we wouldn’t have known going into the theater. Aren’t they all pretty much in the same place as they were when they began (except perhaps Bill and his son Billy)? That may be Solondz’ point: all this obsessing about the past (and, yes, pretending to forget is the same as obsessing; it consumes one’s life) and forgiveness stalls our futures. We can’t move on. All this is fine, but it isn’t nearly as edgy or entertaining as the original picture or, for that matter, other Solondz pictures like Welcome to the Dollhouse. Life during Wartime is worth seeing, but not for the same provocative reasons you might see another Solondz movie.