What happens when a filmmaker runs out of ideas? Todd Solondz's new film Life During Wartime is the story of three very different sisters. Helen (Ally Sheedy) is wildly successful but miserable. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is a plain-jane granola type, overly emotional and unhappy. Trish (Allison Janney) is a cheerful mother who didn't realize the father of her children (Ciran Hinds) was a pedophile. Sound familiar? Back in 1998, Solondz made a well-regarded (and almost-brilliant) film called Happiness, with Lara Flynn Boyle as Helen, Cynthia Stevenson as Trish, and Jane Adams as Joy. But if you walk into Life During Wartime cold (as I did), you think he's just being cute; in the first scene (a date gone bad that parallels Happiness's opener), Joy's husband (Michael K. Williams from The Wire) is revealed to be a deviant because he... makes obscene phone calls. So did Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Happiness. Ha ha, inside joke. Then the film continues, and we realize it's not a joke--twelve years later, he's done a Happiness sequel with different actors and better lighting.
What's more, it's not as though he's made any particular strides with this material--it's not like Scorsese revisiting the gangster genre as a more fully-formed artist or something. It's less a sequel, really, than a remake. We're still watching and coping with the unsettling feeling that he's shooting these people in a way that's laughing at them, reveling in the hideousness of the broadly-drawn characters and caricatures. He's still primarily going for easy shock laughs--Trish the mom telling her 12-year-old son about the touch of her new boyfriend, for example, and announcing "I got... wet." She said something dirty in front of her little son! Ho, ho. His primary comic vehicle is incongruity, like a tender mother-son bedside scene containing dialogue that matter-of-factly bandies about the word "faggot" and features discussion of child rape. Fine, fine, shocking. But haven't we been here before with him? It's a one-joke premise--and worse, it's a joke that he's already told.
There are performances that are worth seeing. In spite of the transparency of her material, Janney is a straight-faced comic dynamo, able to deliver a good line (when I asked if her kids are in college, she immediately replies "I wish!") so slyly that you almost miss it. Henderson's one-note characterization gets old quickly, but she does some interesting things in some of her goofier comic skits, like a nightgown-clad dream visit to an empty chain restaurant. And while Sheedy overdoes it, she brings some much-needed comic energy to the movie ("I mean, we're still a country at war!" she volunteers in the middle of a conversation, apropos of nothing)--send-ups of Hollywood liberal pretension may not be the freshest muffin in the basket, but at least it's a new element. And there are other scattered laughs, here and there, but most are painfully, laboriously obvious.
There is one all-out great scene. The pedophile ex-husband, just out of jail, is at a swanky hotel bar when he catches a glimpse of an unhappily married woman played by Charlotte Ramping (about as unflatteringly photographed as you can imagine--she's got hair like a wet dishmop). She basically storms into the movie and takes it over, spitting out her harsh, staccato dialogue with venom and total authority. They go to bed, and afterwards, she catches him in her purse--and that's when she lets him (and us) have it. Rampling's got less than five minutes of screen time, but she conveys enough real anger and real hurt to put the other smirky-grinny bullshit in the movie to shame.
The photography is lovely and the filmmaking is competent, but Solondz's schtick has grown tiresome. I admired Happiness while never needing to see it again--and yet, I've been tricked into doing just that (I'll admit, I might have responded to the film differently if I'd known in advance that it was intended to be a sequel--I spent the bulk of the film subconsciously playing connect-the-dots). There's a scene late in Life During Wartime between the pedophile father and his oldest son; the director is clearly looking to make us uncomfortable, and he does. But what then? At this point in his career, mere shock value isn't enough. He's already done that. What now?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.