Director: Todd Solondz
In 2009, controversial director Todd Solondz released a small film called Life During Wartime. It contained a strong ensemble cast and some really dark themes for a comedy, but what really attached people to it was that it was the sequel to Happiness made over ten years before. For those unaware, Happiness is probably one of the most controversial films ever made. It took material that really did not sit easy with audiences such as rape, pedophilia and suicide and used it in such a comedic way while trying to make points criticizing the pursuit of happiness. It is a brilliant but disturbing film that uses its tightly constructed ideas and executes them fantastically through sharp comedy and powerful drama. It was praised by critics and is one of my all time favourite films. With Life During Wartime, does Todd Solondz retain the same quality he brought to Happiness?
Life During Wartime is a sequel to Happiness, but can be labelled better as a “spiritual sequel”. Solondz sets the film ten years later with the same characters from the predecessor living their new lives and trying to cope with the past. Some are trying to reconnect with their loved ones while others are trying to forget and get over them. The story and ideas Todd is trying to present are incredible. He takes the concept of “forgive and forget” and makes the audience question it. When is it right to forgive someone for their actions, are some people impossible to forgive, how can one forget their own dark past? These questions are presented very well in the film in some of the most important scenes and the characters. He uses Trish and Timmy’s tale of their father Bill, a therapist/pedophile along with Joy and Andy to present a dark past and the struggles of coping. The film also uses its post-9/11 backdrop to its major advantage by attributing it to the point Solondz is trying to make. It compares the horrifying tragedy to these people in their situations in such a mature manner. Yes, it can come off as tasteless to some, but the film is trying to raise questions about forgiveness in a modern American society and uses September 11th as an example.
There is one moment where the film detracts from its point or expresses it in problematic ways. These moments really bugged me and made me question why they were even in the final cut at all. Take a look at the subplot involving Trish’s (Allison Janney) new boyfriend, Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner) and Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder). The entire subplot feels so forced and unnecessary. It attempts to show someone as innocent as Timmy learning to cope with how horrible his father was, but it just came off as a dumb attempt at humour. The moment would have worked better if it focused on Bill (Ciarán Hinds) meeting Timmy and the family again as they have gone through the changes. The focus though is on Timmy trying to learn from Harvey and then leads to him accusing him of rape because he touched his shoulder. It never came off as funny or emotional and it wasted two decent characters, who should not have been there in the first place. This really took me out of the film and made me question the point of having that scene in there.
Life During Wartime can also be seen as a “spiritual sequel” because Todd completely recast everyone. Every character from Happiness is now played by someone new including Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, Shirley Henderson and Michael K Williams. The change in casting was really something I could not get used to, even if the performances were great. Everyone brought their A-game, but I kept missing the original cast and just wish they were in this as opposed to this new cast. I especially missed Dylan Baker in his role as Bill, a therapist/pedophile who just left jail and is estranged from his family. Dylan Baker nailed the role in Happiness and he could’ve given an Oscar worthy performance here. That does not mean that Ciarán Hinds did not do a good job, in fact he was great, but I just wanted Baker in the role. The performances were top notch all around regardless of not standing out as well as the original ensemble that brought them to life.
Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is a fascinating film that boldly makes an incredible point about forgiveness. He uses his same characters from 1998’s Happiness as well as a post-9/11 backdrop to execute this point, allowing the audience to question if, despite the circumstances, it is time to let go of the past and move forward. He also changes the entire cast and brings in new actors to portray these classic characters. They give good performances but nothing to separate themselves from the original cast. There are also some detractions from the point, most involving the subplot with Harvey Wiener and Timmy that made me question why it was inserted. Wartime is a bold film with some bold ideas. It may not hit all the time but it hits hard when it does.