Friday, 19 November 2010

REVIEW: Life During Wartime (2009)

  Todd Solondz is not a mainstream filmmaker and probably never will be. His films are dark (though funny) and very much for a niche audience. He is probably best known for 1998’s hilarious ‘Happiness’, which tackled paedophilia and other difficult subjects. His new film, ‘Life During Wartime’, is a sequel to ‘Happiness’, picking up ten years later and following the logical progression of all the same characters.
  Again, it centres on three sisters. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is still having trouble with men and her marriage to Allen (played by Omar from ‘The Wire’, or Michael Kenneth Williams), an incurable pervert, is on the rocks. She is also seeing the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens), from a previous failed relationship. Trish (Alison Janney) and her children are dealing with life after Bill (Ciaran Hinds), her ex-husband who has just been released from jail for paedophilia. Meanwhile, Helen (Ally Sheedy) is unhappy with success in Hollywood.
  Despite the fact that the film is a sequel to ‘Happiness’ (it was originally going to be called ‘Forgiveness’, thus reflecting its major theme just as the title of ‘Happiness’ did), all of its recurring characters are played by different actors. One of the film’s many oddities is simply the fact that the role Philip Seymour Hoffman made scary yet likable in ‘Happiness’ is now being played by Baltimore’s former legendary vigilante. And that’s before the film has even begun to be disturbing.
  The bulk of the characters deal with one ghost or another during the film and the main trouble is whether they can forgive or be forgiven. Much of the film’s running time is taken up with conversation pieces between two characters, usually with one or both on the verge of tears. The film is a sometimes subtle, sometimes over the top exploration of the after-effects of a family torn apart. It may appear slow and very vague, but it ends on a powerfully sad and oddly optimistic note.
What makes the film so strange and hard to peg may be, I fear, the amateurishness of its director, who mixes scenes of profound sadness and introspection with horribly tacky scenes of ghosts fading from view. The final scene is a perfect example, which sees the film at its most beautiful and resonant but, in the background, returns the fodder of the dreariest drama.
While ‘Happiness’ was serious and disturbing and slightly misanthropic, but also very funny and likable, ‘Life During Wartime’ is much more serious, much less funny and a lot less realistic. It seems as if Solondz got a lot of smoke in his eyes and his judgement was clouded by his constant belief that he was making his “masterpiece”. The film is hard to be entirely moved by simply because its seriousness is taken in such ridiculous extremes. It is a good film and a powerful film, but it feels like a director’s debut, full of promise but a bit silly.

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