Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime

2010, NR, 98 min. Directed by Todd Solondz. Starring Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Emma Hinz, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Reubens, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, Renée Taylor, Gaby Hoffman, Dylan Riley Snyder, Chris Marquette, Rich Pecci.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 20, 2010

Solondz's breakthrough feature, 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, was so lacerating in its depiction of humanity as a clot of pitiless predators and doomed prey that it practically required a field dressing upon exiting the theatre. The surreal torments inflicted on hapless heroine Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo's unforgettably cringeworthy debut) were gallows humor of the blackest sort. Solondz has dropped off the radar of late, but the good news – or bad news, if you’ve never warmed to his chilly touch – is that this master of the jaundiced worldview is back on top of his game. (And, really, it does feel like some sort of evil-cerebral contest here: despair vs. denial for all the lost marbles.) Life During Wartime is something of a direct sequel to Solondz's 1998 film, Happiness, with one catch: All the characters are played by different actors. If you haven't watched Happiness in 12 years, it's not such a shock. Otherwise, the effect is disconcerting, like tuning in to your favorite soap (say, Dark Shadows) only to find everyone has a new face. Weird, yeah, but oh-so-Solondz, and somehow it works, in the disturbing, tragicomic way that is Solondz’s hallmark. Of the three Jordan sisters, Trish (Janney, brilliant in a characterization overflowing with chemically controlled perkiness) has moved the remains of her family to Florida to escape the grim shadow of her past. You'd think the sunny plastic light in Florida would be anathema to their dark prior lives, but no, Trish's husband, Bill (Hinds), jailed for pedophilia, is released from prison as the film begins. Joy Jordan (the waifish, unmoored Henderson) is having crying jags of her own and heads to that other sun-drenched vacuum, Hollywood, where she meets up with self-obsessed screenwriting sister Helen (Sheedy), who, unsurprisingly, is a callow, chain-smoking, black-clad nightmare. And then there's Joy's dead husband, Andy (Reubens, playing it straight-ish), who returns from the grave to deprive Joy of her namesake. And so it goes in Solondz's world, which burns even as it turns, rotating on a hellishly warped axis. Call it the aesthetic of un-Happiness. (Ends Sunday.)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz, Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Emma Hinz, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Reubens, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, Renée Taylor, Gaby Hoffman, Dylan Riley Snyder, Chris Marquette, Rich Pecci

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