Ten years have passed since shocking revelations shattered the world of the Jordan family, and now sisters Joy, Trish, and Helen, each embroiled in their own unique dilemmas, struggle to find their place in an unpredictable and volatile world.
In Todd Solondz’s new film, Life During Wartime, he revisits his 1998 film Happiness. Happiness is a breathtaking and singular film with a humour so dark and ghastly it leaves one gasping, not laughing. It gave us a suburbia that belonged in a side panel of a Bosch triptych, surreal and troubling, heightened by its garish mundanity. Seared into our collective cinephilic consciousnesses are scenes like Kristina (Camryn Manheim) scarfing a cheeseburger and fries while explaining to her date, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) how she chopped up the doorman and put him in Ziploc bags and stored him the freezer; a psychotherapist (Dylan Baker) pragmatically discussing erections and masturbation with his borderline-pubescent son; and the infamous dog kiss at the end. Solondz was boldly stressing boundaries—which is why he’s one of my favorite filmmakers—and it never felt gratuitous or prurient or self-conscious. Well, maybe prurient, but in an aggressive and focused way. Unfortunately—maybe because it is treading the same territory without digging much deeper—with Life During Wartime the transgressions seems rote, mechanical, and a little pandering. Is it fair to compare the two films? Of course it’s fair! Who is going to see the new film, really—rarefied art house fare from an authentic auteur—except those with familiarity with the auteur? Solondz has said that he wanted the movie to stand alone, be a singular piece, that this is not a sequel, but a re-imagining. I think that is disingenuous. A lot of the humour and prospective pleasure to be taken from the film is based on how he’s twisting the material. In-jokes, really. He repeats whole scenes, such as the opening in both films when the character Joy dumps her beau. The new film is an exact duplicate: same restaurant, same art direction, same camera set-up, same teary close-ups, same explosion of anger. Even exactly the same gift is offered to Joy. The fun is its parallelism to the original.
Life During Wartime is the continued tale of three sisters. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is still a needy masochist who still wants to be a singer/songwriter and still can’t find anywhere to fit in, be it in a relationship to a man or her own family. She is being pestered by the ghost of Andy (Paul Ruebens of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, played in the original by Jon Lovitz), the man she dumped in the first film who then committed suicide, and who now wants to have another go. Joy is shocked—‘But I’m married!’ she says, oblivious to the fact that his being dead will probably be a greater obstacle. Trish (Allison Janey) is a cheerfully callous housewife who has rediscovered her Judaism in a big way after her therapist husband Bill is sent to prison for raping boys in the first film. Trish has found a man, Harvey (Michael Lerner), who is another revisitation from an earlier Solondz film, Dawn Weiner’s father from Welcome to the Dollhouse. Trish is happy because he’s normal, not ‘sicko pervy’. ‘I can’t talk about my sex life,’ Harvey tells her. She nods. ‘Sometimes it’s better not to understand.’ Mark Weiner, Dawn’s brother, is also back, this time played by Rich Pecci. He was transformed from just being an uber-geek in Welcome to the Dollhouse to a baby-molester in that film’s reimagining, Palindromes. Here his is ‘misinterpreted’. Helen (Ally Sheedy) is a flinty, pompous writer who’s given up her poetry from the previous film because she was ‘crushed by the enormity of my success.’ She is now writing screenplays in Hollywood because ‘it’s more pure.’ Bill (Ciarán Hinds), Trish’s therapist husband, is released from prison after serving ten years for Happiness crimes and seeking expiation. Billy (Chris Marquette), their son, is now at college studying homosexuality in bonobo chimpanzees, who substitute sex for aggression. In Happiness Billy had been the audience for his father’s cringingly frank discussions on penis girth and cum, here (as both are absent) Trish and younger son Timmy fill the void of gleefully inappropriate parental candidness. ‘I’m in love,’ Trish tells Timmy as she prepares dinner, ‘he has this power. He touched me. I got all wet.’ ‘Are you still wet?’ Timmy asks.
Nothing is really much different, except Life During Wartime is not quite as enjoyable as Happiness. It doesn’t feel as twisted, dark, or shatteringly hilarious. This is mainly due to the casting, which has no fidelity to the religions, race, or respective ages of the original film. Amy Adams as the original Joy was a sad clown. She was lachrymose, pathetic: one of those characters that you love watching get hurt. Shirley Henderson (one of my favourite actresses) as Joy, though still lachrymose, is ethereal, otherworldly, and too surreal to be a sad sack. The character of Bill, the child-molesting therapist originally played by Dylan Baker worked because he seemed so ordinary and feckless, a zombie of 1950s suburban self-congratulation and propriety, a guy with a face like a big child who looked like a dad from a Sears catalogue. The sick core of predator’s soul was therefore surprising and clashing. Ciarán Hinds is more powerful, thicker, and menacing (he seemed very much at home in There Will Be Blood), tortured by the guilt that original lacked. Not a wonderful combination for comedy. We can’t laugh at people’s horrendous lives when they think they’re sad too. Allison Janney, a superb actress—watching her in Away We Go was like watching vintage Solondz—lacks some of the suburban vacuity that made the original Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) work so well but has scenes where the level of performance and the level of writing rise to converge and has. She has that heightened quality that fits into the Solondz world, where, for example, the idea of good parenting is sharing your Klonopin. And Ally Sheedy is delightfully neurotic. But everyone is altogether more serious, feeling the consequences and mortal toll of their actions. In the original the characters were oblivious about their despicable lives, and it is pleasant to laugh at pompous and clueless people.
That’s why, really, only the new characters have the force of the brilliance. Charlotte Rampling is used better here than she has been in years (and she’s had some extremely good years recently). She plays Jacqueline, who Bill encounters, in passing, in a bar. ‘Kids?’ he asks her. ‘Not anymore,’ she says, ‘Pack of wolves. They think I’m a monster.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I am a monster.’ Hers is a screen domination of such power and intensity it dulls everything else around. But even Solondz stumbles on what should have been his most relished and ghastly creation, and leaves her on a maudlin note so unoriginal and bathetic it nearly undid the brilliance that came before it.
The movie is about the nature of forgiveness, something that is, of course, unheard of in the Solondz-world we’ve come to love. Everybody’s asking for it, from the opening scene when Allen asks Joy for forgiveness for an outrageously escalating litany of transgressions to Bill’s eventual confrontation with Billy, who responds by saying, ‘There is nothing to forgive. It was unforgivable.’ At times, even though redemption is withheld, it seems ponderous, something we never felt in the more vicious, the more hilarious, the more penetrating original. Thank God for Charlottle Rampling: when Bill asks Jacqueline for forgiveness she replies, ‘Fuck you, you prick.’ Now that’s more like it.