Life During Wartime (IFC Films, NR)

Another problem with Life During Wartime is that not much is going on here.

 

There was a period in the late ’90s following 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and 1998’s Happiness where Todd Solondz was looking like about the best and brightest among American independent filmmakers. As of late, he seems to have run out of ideas. 2004’s (surprisingly good) Palindromes was originally intended to be a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse, and only turned out the way it did because Heather Matarazzo unsurprisingly turned down the opportunity to reprise her role as Dawn Wiener, leaving Solondz to kill off her character and focus the film on Dawn’s cousin, Aviva. Now, Solondz is again trying to revisit past successes; Life During Wartime, Solondz’ first film in five years, returns to the ensemble of characters he first brought into the world with Happiness.
 
I say the ensemble of characters, but it isn’t the same ensemble cast—there are half a dozen or more characters that we first met in Happiness and return to in Life During Wartime, but not a single one of these characters is played by the same actor in both films. This recasting technique was also something Solondz first fiddled with in Palindromes, where he famously had seven different actresses and one actor play the main character at various points in the movie. While that casting technique suited Palindromes, for the most part it hurts Life During Wartime; it’s hard to not get distracted by who is supposed to be who from the original, and by and large the LDW cast is nowhere near as good as Happiness’s (though casting Paul Reubens in the role Jon Lovitz played in the original is something close to brilliant).
 
Another problem with Life During Wartime is that not much is going on here. Where Happiness seemed to focus mostly on Joy (Jane Adams in Happiness, Shirley Henderson in Life During Wartime), Life spends most of its time on Trish (Cynthia Stevenson (H), Allison Janney (LDW)) and her young son, Timmy (Justin Elvin/Dylan Riley Snyder). If your memory is sharp, you might recall that a boy named Billy was Trish’s young son in Happiness. Life During Wartime’s events occur ten or so years after the events of Happiness, and Billy is now in college; Timmy’s his little brother. This lapse in time has allowed Billy and Timmy’s pedophile father, Bill (the brilliant Dylan Baker in the original, the barely passable Ciarán Hands here), to serve his time and get out of jail, and once he does he spends his time trying to reconnect with his sons without the soon-to-be-remarried Trish finding out. Meanwhile, Joy is dealing with visions of her dead ex-boyfriend, Andy (Lovitz/Reubens), and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle/Ally Sheedy) is trying her best to avoid her blood relatives, understandable under the circumstances.
 
At no point does any of this complication really get compelling, though there are a few squirmy laughs and surprising insights into the human condition along the way. Solondz revisits his trick of getting a talented artist to contribute to the soundtrack but then more or less squandering them: He had Belle & Sebastian for 2001’s Storytelling and woefully underused them, and here he enlists Devendra Banhart to do the movie’s theme song and sneaks his “Heard Somebody Say” into a key scene, both to little effect.
 
As far as Solondz’s films go, this one is probably my least favorites, but it’s still probably worth catching in the theater if you can; movies that intentionally make people uncomfortable are always more fun with a crowd. That said, if Solondz continues down the path he’s on now, it will soon become hard to recommend his movies at all, theatrically or otherwise. | Pete Timmermann

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