"Life During Wartime"

“Life During Wartime,” written and directed by Todd Solondz, starring Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds, and Charlotte Rampling.

Writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest films "Happiness" and "Life During Wartime," make people uncomfortable because they have to do with the sensitive subject of male sexual perversity and pedophilia. We would rather not hear, read, or see anything dealing with this. Yet Solondz has found a way to bring these issues to light with humor, intelligence, and objectivity. His films are categorized as comedies but are more tragicomic. Solondz's first film, which he also wrote and directed, was “Welcome to the Dollhouse,”(1995); it made Heather Matarazzo a star. “Welcome” deals with the torture of nerds in Junior High School, concern over popularity, bullies, cliques, sexuality, sibling rivalry, and kidnapping. He also wrote and directed “Happiness,”(1998), starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Allen, a blobby, sexually impotent man given to dialing women at random and making obscene remarks; and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle),a neighbor in his building who responds positively to his random call, freaking him out. She, Joy (Jane Adams), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) are sisters;, Cameron Manheim also gives a standout performance as Kristina, Hoffman's loser equal, who ends up doing a Jeffrey Dahlmer on their horny doorman.

Solondz's most recent film, “Life During Wartime,” takes place some years after "Happiness" and is a more mature, measured film with an almost satisfying resolution. In interviews he has admitted that he felt "Happiness" needed more. Eleven years later, he succeeds with "Life." The film catches up with the sisters: Joy, Helen, and Trish, now played by different actors though their characters remain the same: Joy (Shirley Henderson) is the wanna-be do-gooder. Helen (Ally Sheedy)is the successful writer who suffers her fame, and Trish (Alison Janney) now divorced, aims to get her love life back on track. Her ex-husband, Bill, whom we saw in "Happiness," played by a Jimmy Stewart-like Dylan Baker, was being hauled off to prison for pedophilia. In "Life," an excellent Ciaran Hinds is Bill. He has just been paroled.

In “Happiness” and in “Life,” Solondz’s male characters are pedophiles, impotent obscene phone-callers, and ineffectual husbands and fathers; his women are self-doubting and out-of-touch. Prepubescent kids explore their own sexuality and try to solve the mysteries of sex from what they hear from peers, their parents, and others. Near the end of “Happiness” Bill a married, successful psychiatrist, is hauled off to a New Jersey prison for molesting his son's best friend (Solondz trusts the impact of his work; he feels confident sparing his audience gratuitous scenes of Bill in action). The final scene takes place in Miami: Trish, Helen, and Joy are dining with their mother, Mona (Louise Lasser) and father, Lenny (Ben Gazzara), who are on the verge of divorce, but deny it. Joy (Jane Adams) is between save-the-world jobs; Helen (Flynn Boyle) is dramatically overwhelmed by yet another book-signing; and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is trying to make it as a single mom of three and put behind her the onus of her husband's abberant crime (the reason for her move from New Jersey to Miami) and looking for love. Her obviously troubled son Billy, 11 (Rufus Read), watches a woman on a balcony in a bikini smearing herself with lotion; we see his face and know something has happened. Billy approaches the table and proudly imparts some very personal information about a successful physical act he’d just accomplished that he had once questioned his dad about.

“Life” (Solondz eschews the label “sequel”) begins with Joy (now played by pale, child-like Shirley Henderson), who has found her calling in working with the incarcerated, and her ex-con husband, Allen, (Michael K. Williams), at a restaurant (a scene that tracks to a similar opening scene in “Happiness”). Actually, when the scene opens, before the credits, the audience (unless it’s seen “Happiness”) has no clue who or where these characters are, or what they are doing. Solondz keeps the camera on them for a long time before one of them speaks. He requires patience and we are always rewarded for having to wait. Then, after the credits, it cuts to a shot of Trish’s ex, Bill (now played by Ciaran Hinds) leaving prison in a standard-issue black suit and white shirt. He stands alone on a sun-drenched, deserted street. Gazing at his stricken, unshaven face, we sense his wonder, “Who am I? What the fuck do I do, now.” Meanwhile, Trish (Allison Janney), in the kitchen of her suburban home, dreamily confesses to her youngest son, Timmy (an elfin, freckle-face Dylan Riley Snyder), that she has fallen in love with bearish Harvey (a believable Michael Lerner), who left her in a certain physical state. Timmy, of course, wants her to explain; which, of course, she can’t. A heartbreaking scene takes place between Jaqueline, an aged prostitute, and Bill in a mid-level hotel. Jacqueline is beautifully played by sloe-eyed, sultry Charlotte Rampling (a Lauren Bacall equal had her career not been derailed for a time by alcohol).

“Life” travels back and forth among the sisters, showing how each is dealing with what has happened to her. Joy’s obsessed boyfriend, Andy, in “Happiness,” (Jon Lovitz) and in “Life,” (a poignant performance by a once maligned Paul Reubens), meets a tragic end. He haunts her throughout the film (“I see dead people.”). Husband, Allen, does not fare well, either. Helen (Alley Sheedy), though a success, still agonizes that she’s an imposter, a fraud. Trish puts a happy face on everything. She basically just wants to protect her children. She succeeds too well in that it cost her her new love due to Timmy’s misunderstanding of her warning about child molesters. Solondz ends “Life” with a bittersweet resolution of sorts between Bill and his oldest son, Bill, Jr.(Chris Marquette), when he seeks him out at a college in Oregon.

In interviews, Solondz has confessed that throughout life he had undergone much of what his characters had experienced which gives him the unique ability to get deeply into them. He reveals their buried desires in believable dialogue and soliloquy. He shows respect for his male characters - - despite their unfortunate dark sides - -unlike most of the recent comedies skewed towards men that renders them as nothing more than schlubby, immature, ignoramuses. Also, he shows kids as having intelligence and honesty beyond that of their parents and adults in general. His female characters, though, come off as self-involved, clueless (as far as their kids are concerned), or ineffective do-gooders. Trish and Helen constantly give Joy, a vegan, advice: Eat meat, if only once a month! and snipe about her behind her back.

Solondz’s exterior scenes in “Life” are stark and harshly lit, unpopulated. They are shot long, resembling Edward Hopper paintings, and impart a feeling of loneliness such that we relate to the characters in the knowledge that we all are alone in our own beings. Interior shots are in high-color, more pastel than saturated (Cinematography by Edward Lachman). The soundtrack is spare. Music supervisor , Doug Bernheim, tastefully infuses the film with classical bits as the second movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D. The titles of all three films are woven into them as original songs, sung and played once by the characters. The title of the film refers to the ongoing "wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trish aims to make Timmy understand that despite his frustrations and sadness over his dad (Trish had convinced him and Bill, Jr. that he was dead), that we all have to put aside our grievances because this is life during wartime.

Note: It’s not required that you see “Happiness” before “Life During Wartime,” but I recommend it.