"Life During Wartime" Movie Review (2010)

7/24/2010 Posted by Admin

"Life During Wartime"

Movie Review

Directed by Todd Solondz, Written by Todd Solondz, 96 Minutes, Not Rated.

By our guest blogger, Rob Stammitti

It will be a struggle for anyone to find a film quite as bizarre as Todd Solondz's latest dark (really, darker than dark) comedy "Life During Wartime." Solondz has always been more of a cult filmmaker--you won't find any huge audiences for even his best films, "Happiness," "Storytelling," or "Welcome to the Dollhouse." But he is a director that at the very least will give the audience something original.

"Wartime" is particularly bizarre in that, like his previous film "Palindromes," it acts as a sequel to one of his older films, in this case the 1998 film "Happiness." No big deal, right? You hear of a lot of filmmakers going back to their major films and making sequels these days. Kevin Smith did it with "Clerks," Oliver Stone's doing it with "Wall Street"--the big difference here is that this is Todd Solondz we're talking about. It's never simple with this guy.

What the oddball filmmaker has done here is taken the entire cast of characters from "Happiness" and assigned new actors to portray them, sometimes of entirely different races and ages. In the original film, Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrayed a mentally disturbed and repressed shut-in named Allen. Here, Allen is portrayed by Michael K. Williams, best known for his character Omar Little on "The Wire." In similarly mindboggling casting, Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman, for those unfamiliar) portrays a character originally played by Jon Lovitz. It makes for some confusing exposition, that's for sure. It's made doubly confusing when we're expected to just know who's who, so for those going in unfamiliar with "Happiness," or even those who have seen it and don't have it too fresh in their memory, it can be a total nightmare. But Solondz has never been known for making his audience comfortable.

The plot, which is just about as loose as its predecessor's, takes place a decade or so later, and we're reintroduced to the lives of the three Jordan sisters, Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy). They haven't exactly made huge steps forward in their lives--the energy they spent on trying to find happiness has instead turned into attempts to find forgiveness and hope in a world ravaged by inner and outer turmoil (there are several references to the current conflicts in the Middle East, and in typical Solondz fashion they're quite off-the-wall compared to your average politically minded film).

Trish's now ex-husband, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), just released from prison, is also seeking forgiveness, but for something most deem wholly unforgivable. Allen, past the point of repentence, has committed suicide, and together he and Andy (Reubens) haunt Joy from the grave. Relationships build and crumble, anti-semetic sentiments come and go, and weird dream sequences fill every corner.

Despite its near-inaccessibility, Solondz has made something really special here. In his own way, the way he's done things for more than a decade now, he expresses emotional honesty so effectively and painfully that there is bound to be a moment that strikes every person who gives the film a glimpse. It is incredibly misanthropic, but like his previous works, there always is the slightest hint of heart to it all. We're expected to hate the characters, and then hate ourselves for eventually loving them, and ultimately we realize we don't hate them at all. We are them. And though we may feel bad for it later, we do get a good deal of laughs out of them.

Still, even as a culmination of everything Solondz has dealt with thus far (personal identity, sexual frustration, death, grief and all in a style that very much combines that of all his other films), there's something missing. Perhaps it's just that by writing it as a sequel to "Happiness," he loses some of the power it might have had if there had been more time with the characters. Perhaps that's the point--maybe Solondz knows that by casting completely different actors, we're forced to see them as we know them on the inside as opposed to the faces we became familiar with.

Whatever the case, "Life During Wartime" is about as affecting as modern comedy can be, and though it may anger many and baffle everyone, it's easily the most refreshing comedy since Solondz's last.

Grade: B

View the trailer for "Life During Wartime" below. What are your thoughts of the film?

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