by Tony Dayoub
Director Todd Solondz revisits the characters of his most (in)famous movie, Happiness (1998), in the sort-of sequel, Life During Wartime. In Happiness, the gag was how Solondz could mask the sickening acts perpetrated by a child molester/psychologist and an obscene caller—and how those acts affected their friends and family—with a defiant Leave it to Beaver vibe that made one's skin crawl even more. Life During Wartime is decidedly less repulsive, exploring the impact the events of the first film had on those characters more than a decade later, and whether forgiveness or redemption are even possible given the heinousness of such acts.
The movie begins with a scene that is virtually identical to the first scene in Happiness. Both scenes feature Joy (Jane Adams in the first one, now Shirley Henderson), a homely woman, breaking off a romance with a significant other who is overwhelmed with tears. In this film, that is Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), a pervert who Joy married when she thought he had left his lewd addictions behind, but who now admits he's fallen off the wagon. There is a much stronger subplot involving Joy's sister, Trish (Allison Janney), who is involved with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a man she can envision will be a much better husband and father, to her son Timmy (Dylan Snyder), than her ex ever was. That ex, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), has just done a stint in prison for child molestation and is trying to find older son, Billy (Chris Marquette)—now in college—to assert he hasn't inherited his disturbing sexual proclivities.
The major issue I have with the film is Solondz's deliberate decision to recast all of the parts in the film. In a press conference after the screening, he states that it is because he wanted the two films to stand on their own. I must cry bullshit. Life During Wartime's first scene virtually begs the viewer to recall another iteration of the same scene in Happiness, linking Allen to the character of Andy (Jon Lovitz in the first film, now Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens) in the first film. Andy committed suicide, and keeps returning to haunt Joy in this film. This link is further cemented by the film's conclusion—which I won't reveal here. So why say you want the two films to stand apart, Todd? I believe it's because it makes things a bit easier for you.
Casting new actors who don't bring along the psychic baggage of the first film makes it far less complicated for the audience to identify and empathize with them. The Bill in this movie committed his crimes in the distant past, and we have never seen him orchestrate those crimes as we did in Happiness. Ditto Allen, who comes across quite sympathetic here, unlike his passive-AGGRESSIVE depiction in the first film. The recasting allows Solondz to focus on the forgiveness part in a vacuum, almost as hearsay, divorced from the evil acts that one may find... well, unforgivable. It allows Solondz to deal with the characters almost as if they were new characters. For instance, if we accept that an actor brings some of himself to the role, then we can see where it might be far easier to forgive Hinds as Bill or Williams as Allen than it would be to forgive the original actors who played each role (Dylan Baker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively). Baker and Hoffman, for better or worse, have a smarmier and harder edge to them that makes us more resistant to the idea of each finding redemption.
It's a bit of a copout, really. And rather than help Life During Wartime stand alone, it distracted me to no end. Far better would it have been to address the themes of redemption and forgiveness in the context of a brand new story with new characters. But I believe Solondz wasn't going for that either, hoping instead that the events of Happiness would serve as a kind of shorthand that informs Life During Wartime, and freeing Solondz from doing any expository heavy-lifting. I can't even review the damn thing without talking about the first movie. You can't have it both ways, Todd.
Life During Wartime is playing at the 47th New York Film Festival, at 9 p.m. tonight and 11 a.m. tomorrow, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050
Photo Credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center