Life During Wartime (2009) – sequel to Happiness?

Todd Solondz’ latest film is considered by many to be a sequel to 1998’s Happiness. But personally, it is a little too different, much shorter, and somehow even has a lighter tone than Happiness. Or have we all gotten so used to bleak/black humour, and pathos in film, that this latest entry just doesn’t move us anymore? Has the past decade hardened us – even to the archetypes that are easy to write and laugh at – narcissistic, self-centered ‘artist’; over-the-hill single mother, still hoping for romance; surly, vindictive teenager? Maybe the title sets the expectations too high – after all, it is the end of the 9/11 decade.

Todd’s writing is sharp, and the improvisational style of dialogue delivery puts you at ease. Except the subject matter is not comfortable: suicide, pedophilia, morality, teenage angst, divorce. The last two have been used to great comedic effect in lesser films, presented by flat characters, and driven to nowhere. Instead, we get depth, real loneliness of Trish (Allison Janney) who really hopes to make this guy stay. The guy – Harvey (Michael Lerner) is not a bad guy, and it seems things will align perfectly for the two of them. Even with the little brat Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), whose affection to the real dad Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is both understandable and irrational. We keep hoping things will work out, but as these characters make mistakes, and compound them with even more misguided reactions, we’re compelled to see this human nature unravel. We laugh at their misfortune, while sympathizing with their pain.

There are parallel plots in the film – unsuccessful therapist Joy (Shirley Henderson) is reconnecting with her self-important artist sister Helen (Ally Sheedy). Their relationship is co-dependent and destructive, but we can’t look away while the two women stab each other with painful words, unnecessary observations, and veiled accusations. Meanwhile, their body language screams “I need to be hugged and loved”. It’s laughter through tears again.

The cast is perfect as a group of people who are flawed, realize their issues, but still have no strength or motivation to pull themselves up. The funnies come from their attempts to be bigger, and eventually giving in to their character. The jokes come from self-view, and frequent realizations that this just doesn’t work. We’re still identifying with thesee characters, and that’s where the discomfort is high – it’s comical, but in a tragic way. Perhaps Todd Solondz has pushed the classic greek comedy/tragedy duality to the limit. Still, the film feels shorter than Happiness, and the emptional impact is weaker. There’s more meandering, and more observational scenes. The cast is stellar and the dialogue – razor sharp. Have we just gotten used to black humour? Or are we seeing more and more of these self-destructive people around us – it’s no longer amuzing? And no longer tragic?

I hope that’s not the case. Looking forward to Todd’s next project.


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