Todd Solondz revisits his characters (though with different actors) from 1998’s Happiness in Life During Wartime, a dark comedy that is nearly all dark, no comedy.
Trish (Allison Janney) is a woman raising two young children — the nearly bar-mitzvahed Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) and his younger sister Chloe (Emma Hinz) — in Florida and passing herself off as a widow. In reality, her ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is a pedophile and is serving time in jail. At least that’s what she thinks — at about the same time that a horrified Timmy learns the truth about his father, Bill is released from jail and begins checking in on his family in an attempt to find Billy (Chris Marquette), his and Trish’s oldest son who is now away at college. Trish is trying to move on with her life and is dating Harvey (Michael Lerner), a man she hopes to marry.
Her sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) is also hoping for a happier future but without the old habits of her husband Allen (Michael K. Williams), a man whose particular problems include a compulsion to make obscene phone calls. Needing a break from him, she visits first Trish and then her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), who lives in California, only to be trailed everywhere by the ghost of Andy (Paul Rubens), a former boyfriend who killed himself.
Life During Wartime feels like a series of workshopped dramatic scenes, where after setting up paragraphs of backstory about each character involved, the scene begins and nobody says very much. People walk at a glacial pace across rooms, make facial expressions that seem to consist entirely of little squinches around the edge of a mouth or the corner of an eye and deliver lines that seem either designed to be a spare as possible or as dramatically ironic as possible. Which is not to say the performances are bad; the performances here are actually quite good, quite the well-crafted bit of art. But it’s all sewn together in a story that starts bleak and grows steadily bleaker as we slide down into a deep, dark ditch of human emotion. Where very little happens by way of character arc. You come away with only the time spent with these characters — which are like finely painted ornaments hiding will-to-live-sucking chunks of kryptonite inside.
As countless scenes and chunks of dialogue make clear, the questions here are about forgiving and forgetting — what it means to forgive, when it might be better to forget, forgiveness vs. forgetting, forgiving but not forgetting. It’s an interesting question to ponder but it is so glumly presented the gloom overtakes any philosophical thought. In the final scene a character, head down, shuffles across the screen in the background, underlining the mournful, dismal tone that permeates the movie from beginning to end. Yes, there are bits here that are clever — sure, forgive and forget, one character says, but forgiving and forgetting are like freedom and democracy, one day the Chinese will take over and none of this will matter. Cute but hardly a strong enough tonic to let you burp your way back to cheeriness after the indigestion caused by the heavy meal of these character studies. D
Not rated (though consider it an R). Written and directed by Todd Solondz, Life During Wartime is an hour and 38 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by IFC Films (it is also available through video on demand via IFC).