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:: Life During Wartime

One critic described Todd Solondz as ‘evolving into a postmodern and more disturbed Woody Allen,’ an explorer of middle-class misery and angst. I’d have to agree. His 1998 film Happiness was met with critical praise as the independent filmmaker successfully defied mainstream conventional feel-goodery, and with Life During Wartime, which he has described as a ‘quasi sequel’ to Happiness, Solondz again invokes painful relationships, flawed beings and destabilised morality.

After her husband was incarcerated, Trish (Allison Janney) has finally managed to find love again with the recently divorced Harvey (Michael Lerner). After the discovery that her former husband, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), was a paedophile, Trish is thrilled by the fact that Harvey is normal. However, Bill has recently been released from prison with the intention of meeting up with his son, Billy (Chris Marquette). Meanwhile, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish’s other son, is studying for his bar mitzvah, preparing to enter the world as a man. Trish’s sister, Joy (Shirley Henderson), flees her job at a correctional facility and her pervert, gangbanger boyfriend (Michael K. Williams) to return to Florida and reconnect with her family. She is also haunted by her dead, sex-starved ex-boyfriend, Andy (Paul Reubens); everywhere she turns, a cocktail of misery, guilt and tragedy awaits, and such is the bitter taste of Solondz’s world.

From the opening shot we are confronted with tight emotional claustrophobia, strategically broken by flurries of black humour. This tone continues throughout the film as an ever-darkening pall of nihilism is slowly drawn over us. Allison Janney describing her public orgasm to her 12-year-old son, and Charlotte Rampling’s aggressive, business-like sexual encounter with the paedophile Bill, are amongst the more humorous highlights. There is also a short but excellent performance from Ally Sheedan in the role of Helen, a successful Hollywood screenwriter (dating Keanu) who is highly driven, yet unfulfilled, barely keeping it together: money, success, Keanu… it’s all too much for her and her hollow being seems as if it could implode at any moment. She also represents the farcicality of trying to articulate such emotions, language only adding another layer of frustration and pseudo-expression to the constant battle of the human spirit.

At first you think it is the individual characters that don’t mesh with reality, they are too left-field, like awkward puzzle pieces that just don’t fit into the larger picture, but as the film progresses you realise that it is in fact the world itself that is offbeat, at times visually bright, yet incredibly depressing. Soldonz’s pathos-ridden America is one where the pursuit of happiness maybe an ideal and a right, but it is little else; Gatsby’s dwindling green light across the water, forever out of reach, the proverbial stick-and-carrot keeping you moving through a world of misery and despair; a phantom angel within this post-911 dreamscape, barren and hopeless. It is a world that has been gutted.

There are some interesting thematic forces at work here, unfortunately though there is not much gusto, not much drive to the film. The characters simply float about this emotionally damaged landscape, dark, grizzly reality sending this world into autistic retreat. Hope and optimism remain in a far off, non-existent utopia, forgiveness and morality are drawn into question, and just when love seems to trump all suffering in the final moments, we realise it is futile, as Death’s skeletal claw takes it from us. It is only a matter of time before Timmy takes his place in this emotional wasteland, his childhood innocence soon to be eradicated.

Like the characters, the film lacks heart and energy. There are some good images in the film, terrific acting, plenty of themes exploring our contemporary milieu, and some veritable laugh-out-loud moments, but the whole thing just seems too depressing, too bleak. It is challenging filmmaking, but is this hopeless attitude really necessary?