Life During Wartime (USA)
Todd Solondz takes Happiness from its New Jersey roots to Florida, and recasts with fresh actors – including three famous faces from the UK: Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson, and Charlotte Rampling. The result is just as a Jewish, just as dysfunctional, and even more darkly comic.
However, Life During Wartime is also far more clearly about an issue than any of the director’s previous films – and the topic is ‘forgiveness’. The film opens with a scene that mirrors the opening scene of Happiness: Joy (Henderson) and her husband Allen (Michael K. Williams – a.k.a. ‘Omar’ from The Wire), in the same restaurant, and passing the same engraved replica antique ashtray gift between them. They’re talking about forgiving and forgetting. It’s a theme that recurs frequently and explicitly throughout the film.
After her husband was imprisoned for raping the neighbourhood boys, Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida, and convinced all the kids – Billy, Timmy and Chloe – that their father is dead. Billy is in college, studying homosexuality in the animal kingdom; on the brink of his bah mitzvah, Timmy is old beyond his years, and tolerates his mother talking about her sex life; Chloe (the youngest) is on anti-depressants, and takes karaoke classes after school.
Just as their father William (Hinds) is released from prison, their aunt Joy comes for a visit from New Jersey. Her marriage to sex-pervert Allen has collapsed, and she’s having semi-regular visitations from the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens – aka PeeWee Herman), who killed himself after she broke up with him. In search of support, Joy tracks down her glacial and self-involved sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), who has cut ties with the family and de-listed her contact details; she’s a big success now, and is going out with Keanu.
Solondz has a great visual sense of humour – Billy’s room is decked out in stock-standard freshman posters – an anarchy sign, Ché and Bob Marley; there’s a copy of Naked Lunch next to his bed. In all other respects, it’s the blandest, neatest room imaginable. Even while it’s funny, it’s also desperately sad – Rampling as an aging but aristocratic divorcee, desperate for a fuck, who when she catches William trying to rob her afterwards, says with resignation, ‘I understand, it was hard work; I’m old’.
It’s very different from Happiness – more stylised, but also more emotionally raw. I don’t think Solondz’ films are necessarily getting better, but they’re definitely evolving – which is a good thing – and becoming more humanist (which is even better). [DJ]