Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 2009. Werc Werk Works. Screenplay by Todd Solondz. Cinematography by Edward Lachman. Produced by Derrick Tseng, Christine K. Walker. Production Design by Roshelle Berliner. Costume Design by Catherine George. Film Editing by Kevin Messman.
Todd Solondz’s masterful Happiness has been followed up by this quasi-sequel, starring an entirely new cast in many of the same roles. The three sisters of the original film have progressed in the years since their dramatic experiences of 1998, with Trish (Allison Janney) now living the single life in Florida with her three children (one of whom is now in college) and looking for love again after her husband (Ciarán Hinds) was sent to prison for statutory rape. Joy (Shirley Henderson) has left her dysfunctional marriage to Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams filling in for Philip Seymour Hoffman) and comes to Florida to reconnect with her two sisters (Ally Sheedy, who is terrible and yet compelling, replacing Lara Flynn Boyle as Helen) in the hopes of finding a direction for her life. At the centre of it all is Janney’s middle son Timmy, a young man living under the shadow of his father’s crime, preparing for his bar mitzvah but living a timebomb of confusion as to what it means to be a man. Where Happiness took a bunch of characters and, through a series of humiliations, stripped them all bare to their most vulnerable, Life During Wartime shows the same group of people dealing with that vulnerability by trying to rebuild their girders. The actors in the original have been replaced by older, tougher physiognomies, physical representations of these characters’ attempts to shield themselves from the pain that their lives have brought them: Cynthia Stevenson’s needy feminine tenderness has become Janney’s forcefully goal-oriented femininity, while Lara Flynn Boyle’s flirtatious sexuality and doubt have become Sheedy’s sell-out Hollywood craziness; Henderson is an even more lost and confused replacement for Joy Adams, the same desire to please everyone but so much more desperate and damaged with the years that have passed. Hinds is excellent as Dylan Baker’s counterpart, while Chris Marquette provides the film’s best scene opposite him when father finally confronts son so many years after his fall from grace. Seeing Happiness is not a prerequisite for enjoying this one, however: Solondz’s ability to simultaneously express wacky humour (Janney telling her kid that a man made her feel so wet is superbly funny), provocative taboo themes and poignant human tenderness makes it easy to watch the film without any background context, but viewing the first film does enrich the experience.
The Criterion Collection: #574
Toronto International Film Festival: 2009
Venice Film Festival Award: Best Screenplay