Monday, August 23, 2010


Written & Directed by Todd Solondz

When & Where: Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA. August 15, 2010 1:30PM

"Happiness" was the 1998 film by Todd Solondz about the three Jordan sisters, Trish, Joy and Helen originally played by Cynthia Stevenson, Jane Adams and Lara Flynn Boyle respectively, who all lived in New Jersey. It was a very dark comedy that dealt with the sisters' troubled lives and relationships with each other, the unraveling of their parents forty year marriage and Bill, Trish's husband, who becomes fixated on his young son's friend and proceeds to drug and rape him.

Twelve years later, Mr. Solondz has decided to revisit these characters in a sort of sequel to his original film. After he experimented with the idea in his last film, "Palindromes" (2004) where he had ten different actors playing the same role, he has chosen to recast this current film with all new performers.

Many years have gone by and Trish, now played by Allison Janney, has moved her children to Florida. Her oldest child, Billy (Chris Marquette) is off to college, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is preparing for his bar mitzvah and her youngest, Chloe (Emma Hinz) is asking her mother if she can borrow some of her mother's percocet since she ran out of her own. She has told the youngest children that their father, Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is dead to spare them the pain and humiliation that he is actually in prison for molestation.

Shirley Henderson is filling in the role of Joy, who is visiting Trish because she needs a break from her husband, Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams instead of Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who has been trying to change from his criminal past. While there, she is haunted by visions of the ghost of her former boyfriend, Andy (Paul Reubens) who committed suicide.

Later, Joy visits her other sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy). She is now a successful but self-involved writer who had cut herself off from the family for years. Joy asks if she could stay with her for a while to sort herself out but Helen's life is just too complicated and she is too stressed-out dating Keanu Reeves to possibly have any visitors.

Trish has started dating again and although Harvey (Michael Lerner) is older and not actually her type, she's just happy to have a man in her life. Problems develop when Timmy finds out that his father is still alive by some kid at school. He is upset by the deception but also concerned that he could become like his father.

The family is unaware that Bill has been released from prison on parole. He tracks them down in Florida and while they are away, he sneaks into the house. Once inside, Bill is sadden by how their lives went on without him and proceeds to get Billy's college address so he can pay his son a disturbing surprise visit.

Trish and Harvey are ready to take the next step but she wants to make sure Harvey gets along with her children first. She has him talk to Timmy to help with what is troubling him but because of a misunderstanding about some advice his mother had given him, Timmy makes a wild accusation about Harvey.

Not only did Mr. Solondz alter the cast, he also changed time for some of the characters, for example, the two youngest children, Timmy and Chloe, still appear to be around the same age as they were in the first film. This seems like an arbitrary decision and only adds to the confusion to an already muddled and uneven story.

"Life During Wartime" is supposed to be a comedy and while there are a few dark laughs throughout, most of the film comes across as just bleak. This film focuses on a post 9-11 world and all of the pain and fear that derived from that horrific event but there are no other lighter emotions going on throughout this entire film. Each character sheds plenty of tears and is more afraid, sad, lonely and depressed than the next but after a while, it all just becomes tedious.

The biggest problem is that it doesn't ever feel cohesive. Each scene feels separate, rather than a part of the film as a whole. My favorite moment is a brief sequence when after Bill gets out of prison, he goes to a bar and allows himself to be picked up a woman, played by Charlotte Rampling who tells him she is content to sleep with him just because he's a man and straight. While I enjoyed this scene and like many others, you could have easily pulled it out of the film and it wouldn't have been missed nor caused any confusion by it's absence.

I really liked "Happiness" and I was looking forward to seeing "Life During Wartime" but I ended up just being very disappointed. This sequel is nowhere in the same league as the first film and Mr. Solondz seemed more interested in twisting conventional ideas of film making instead of making a proper, well-thought out showcase about the current state of this American family. I didn't think their lives would have improved much but I certainly thought they would have had a more interesting outcome.