Are there times when it is better to forget than forgive? That is the question central to the lives of the characters in "Life During Wartime," the latest from director Todd Solondz. When it comes to remembering Solondz's 1998 film "Happiness," which shocks and ewws with tales of sexual deviancy, squeamish movie-goers might feel the answer to this question is yes. Unfortunately for those people, Solondz has resurrected those characters, picking up a bit down the road from where he left off with the first film.
In a move that echoes the experimental casting of characters in his 2005 film "Palindromes" (which itself was a sort of sequel to 1995's "Welcome to the Dollhouse"), Solondz has hired different actors for the same roles that actors including Dylan Baker and Philip Seymour Hoffman once inhabited so well with their trademark creepiness. Though that might sound a little confusing, it's a move that works, giving the director a degree of distance that a proper sequel might not allow. This time around, Solondz strikes a more delicate tone, leaving behind much of the gross-out material and delivering instead a thoughtful look at how people attempt to move on from the trauma and dysfunction we all experience to various degrees.
That is not to say that the ghosts of the first film aren't lurking here; they are, they've just had time to age. The film picks up with Trish (Allison Janney) and her children Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) and Chloe (Emma Hinz), both of whom she has led to believe that their father, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) is dead. In reality, Bill has just been released from prison, where he has been serving time for raping a child. Trish's oldest son Billy (Chris Marquette), is away at college. Bill predictably seeks out his family, though his motives are unclear.
It is in the dynamic between mother and children where Solondz is able to show his skill as a filmmaker. Their relationship is shocking, but not so much that they don't still come across as human. Trish describes sexual feelings to 13-year-old Timmy with a level of detail most would find inappropriate at any age, and then quickly tries to backpedal, her confused regret elevating her above your run-of-the-mill damaged housewife. When little Chloe can't find her Klonopin pill , she casually asks her mother if she can borrow hers. "Just take half a Wellbutrin ," mom responds, "they're on the right next to the Percocet ." Though cloaked in very dark humor, it's a sad and very real world where their baggage melts Trish's mind and drags the children straight to adulthood.
The other adults in the film don't fare much better. Trish's sister Joy, now married to her former neighbor Allen (Michael K. Williams, aka Omar on "The Wire," reprising a role originally filled by Hoffman), is still haunted by the ghost of her former boyfriend, Paul (Paul Reubens), who took his own life after Joy broke up with him. Their other sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy), has found success as a screenwriter but is depressed. Each deals with her respective past in a different way. Some push it away, some try to embrace it; each attempt yields different results.
For all the elements that do flow so well in "Life During Wartime," one thing that doesn't quite work is Solondz's attempt, as evidenced by the title, to link the characters with the outside world, specifically the goings-on in the Middle East. When it comes up now and then in an aside or a fleeting image, it takes the form of an angst that seems a bit too 2004 for an otherwise of-the-moment work.
It's an unnecessary move, particularly since Solondz, beneath the layers of weird, has seized on something universal enough that he doesn't need to inject clues that his characters are more real than they already are.
"Life During Wartime"
Our grade: A-
Genre: Comedy Drama
Running Time: 98 min
MPAA rating: Unrated