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First off, while I'm not a fan of everything Solondz has done, I
consider Happiness one of my all-time favorite films. Thus, I was
really looking forward to Life During Wartime, but after the film was
over, I ended up wishing that Solondz had just left Happiness alone. It
feels like a direct-to-video exploitation release, or maybe even an
especially polished but ultimately off-model fanfic selection in an
alternate universe where Happiness somehow holds the stature of Harry
I am OK with the decision (probably forced, given the current stature of folks like Philip Seymour Hoffman) to recast everyone involved. But given that this is effectively billed as a spiritual sequel, it's hard to get past some of the resulting serious discrepancies in performance and character. Ally Sheedy, Allison Janney, Claran Hines and Michael K. Williams all turn in otherwise-good performances that unfortunately have very little in common with their characters' original personalities, making believable continuation impossible. Dylan Snyder's Timmy represents a new character that effectively replaces the role of Billy in Happiness, but he's nowhere near as believable or likable as that character was.
Shirley Henderson, in particular, totally misses the tone and purpose of Jane Adams in the role of Joy, who was perhaps the only "sympathetic" character in the original (other than Billy). We no longer experience Joy as a sweet, lovable granola-crunchy dreamer and world-worn lifelong loser. Instead, Henderson comes off as some kind of generally-emotionless whispering wee faerie with none of Adams' warmth or ability to generate pathos. I do, however, greatly enjoy Paul Reubens' spot-on performance in the place of Jon Lovitz's original Andy-- although Andy's role in this movie is now inexplicably central, given how little he really mattered to Joy past the first half-hour in Happiness.
It's hard for a Happiness fan to get past the labored and extremely drawn-out exposition that results from all these character discrepancies. You get the feeling that Solondz is having to take unusual pains to catch us up on the story, and to get us to buy New Actor Y in the role of Old Actor X. The movie starts to finally lift up out of these dregs in the last half hour or so, just in time to make us wonder what the point was, and/or why he didn't just create an entirely new universe with his entirely new cast to save himself (and us) all the trouble. I can't imagine a viewer who has never seen Happiness would find its first two-thirds any more satisfying for all the effort.
Most troublingly for those who can't help but compare (and appropriately so, given the "spiritual sequel" billing), Happiness is a darkly hilarious movie, with most of the humor coming from the unspoken sadness and/or maliciousness of its desperate characters' interactions. Life During Wartime simply isn't funny, and isn't similarly "subtle." It's melodramatic, almost soap-opera-like in tone, with few of the wonderfully dissonant, squirm-in-your-chair moments that made Solondz' '90s works so entertaining (and so fun to show to the uninitiated). It often feels like we're being hit over the head with the "purpose" of each character in Wartime, rather than letting their actions / words simply speak for themselves as it was in Happiness.
This might have been a somewhat OK movie if it had been a fresh start with no baggage from Solondz' masterwork. Obviously, it's hard for any director / producer / screenwriter to escape from their widely-beloved past works if they choose to do something different. But in this case, Solondz actually *chose* to bring that baggage along, and dares fans of the original to make comparisons (as is immediately evident from even the opening scene and credits to anyone who remembers Happiness). I'm not sure if this was a cynical effort on the part of Solondz-- who has had documented troubles getting funding for his 00s movies-- to cash in on the relatively small Happiness fanbase, giving them a movie that they "have to see," even though these two films ultimately have very little in common.
Solondz' more recent work in general has been disappointing to me, but his misguided effort to "continue" Happiness has been by far the biggest and most bitter disappointment yet, failing to add anything new, interesting or even tone-appropriate to the universe he wants us to revisit. I desperately hope he's done making "spiritual sequels" now, and will have something really new to say (hopefully as funny as his old stuff) when his next project rolls around.
Not being acquainted with Todd Solondz before now, I found myself
comparing "Life During Wartime" at an advance screening tonight to the
Cohen brothers, "A Serious Man"-- a film I really enjoyed. It felt like
it was hitting a lot of the same notes at the front end of the film,
with its humour and the Jewish family life. This was considerably
darker--don't worry, I noticed.
I found the Ciaran Hinds story and acting strong, though it made me wary I was being set up to think, "Oh, not such a bad guy, after all." I was relieved this never went further than to suggest, "only human, after all." I'd be interested to hear what some of my social worker friends think of how the film treats this family's big secret, especially in light of the forgiveness theme.
Joy's thread in this film, quirky and fun as it was at times, felt the weakest. There was something about the character's little girl voice and the vacillation and mood swings that started to annoy and distract me, after a time. Maybe the director was just playing with another cliché, there, about long-suffering women, but, well, see for yourself.
Todd Solondz is unique and so are his films. He forces you to look through an angle that we systematically ignore. There is an element of tenderness that permeates the darkest of corners and compassion emerges, limpid, clear even rational. This is, if possible, a sequel to his masterful "Happiness" The pain is still palpable but there is a hint of hope, China or not China. "I don't care about freedom or democracy, I care about my dad" Yes, I hear you kid. In the midst of it all, I hear you. Added bonuses: Cieran Hids as a scary, powerful presence. Allison Janney, one of the best American actresses working today. Charlotte Rampling makes an appearance as a sort of escapee from an erotic nightmare and don't you dare ignore or let this film pass you by. Todd Solondz is a great, startling American poet.
Caught this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Life
During Wartime is a depressing and envelop pushing film that crosses
boundaries, but never feels gross or shocking for the sake of it. For
those familiar with Todd Solondz previous films Welcome To The
Dollhouse and Happiness, you know what type of material is in his
films. This one is no exception.
Telling the story of a dysfunctional family, we follow 3 separate stories. The father, who was just released from prison after some cruel and disgusting charges tries to find his son, to make sure he doesn't turn out like him. The son is in college, he has two siblings, a younger brother who is turning 13 and becoming a man with a bar mitzvah and a younger sister who is a karaoke singer. The wife/mother is looking for a new lover in her life and finds this other man who makes her, in her own words to her 12 year old son, wet. Finally the sister of the mother who mixes romance and her work. The problem is that death follows her wherever she goes and it has kind of driven her crazy.
Get all that? This is my first Todd Solondz film, but I know of his previous films and what they dealt with and I can say that Happiness is darker. Life During Wartime isn't with it's fair share of uncomfortable scenes. Specifically the son asking about his father and why he is in prison. The father is played by Ciarán Hinds, who has little dialogue, but the scenes in which he confronts his son is powerful and stands as the most memorable. Paul Reubens plays an interesting character who's only two scenes, but those two scenes are stand outs.
Everything about the film is awkward, straight from the beginning. There are moments that you laugh at, that make you feel dirty. Janey as the mother is comical and if you're a fan of Happiness look out for some recurring characters, just played by different actors.
The film is well shot and acted, it doesn't really drag, but it is slow. It's mostly scene after scene of conversations. It's not a laugh riot and there are no laugh out loud scenes. The comedy is dark and subtle at times. It's more dramatic and depressing than comedic. It feels short and the ending leaves a lot to be desired. It was abrupt and left a lot of questions unanswered.
It explores how well one can forgive someone and mirrors reality. It will divide the audience and fans of his earlier work will most likely be satisfied. I enjoyed it, but it's not a film I would want to see again. I give it credit for being a well done film and it's thought provoking in some scenes, as a whole the film is good. It just has a certain audience and you'll know if you're one of them or not.
"Happiness" was a funny yet very disturbing film. It's a very good film
but one I can't see too often since some scenes are too weird. I wanted
to see the follow up to that film, hoping it would be as funny, sad and
chilling. "Life during Wartime" is quite weak. Having Charlotte
Rampling in a small part did not help. The story took a long time to
get going and then it was over too soon without creating any interest
in the characters nor the storyline.
All the actors in the new film were much paler than the ones playing the same parts in "Happiness". The only appealing one was Shirley Henderson playing Joy (even if I missed Jane Adams dearly). The one playing Trish was nowhere near as good as the original actress, but the part was not as funny either.
Why make a follow up movie without the original cast? It would have been great to see them having aged like their characters. I suppose the actors from Happiness didn't like the script for "Life during Wartime"!
Life During Wartime is of sorts a sequel to Happiness, but Todd Solondz
chose a different cast for his latest film to play the same characters.
I have seen Happiness, but don't remember it well enough and going into
Wartime was actually unaware it was a continuation of events.
Three sisters, Joy, Helen and Trish are utterly different souls leading utterly different lives. Joy is a little scattered and has just separated from her husband and is visited by the ghost of a former co worker. Trish lives with her two younger kids, one of whom Timmy is preparing for his bar mitzvah. She has started dating again after her husband was jailed for molesting children, but she is unaware he has been released. Trish is a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, but is old and distant towards the rest of her family.
The sisters lives intertwine together and with characters from each others past and all three try and long to find love and happiness and is for the most part very enjoyable. I recall, perhaps vaguely that Solondz' other films are a little hard going and often harsh, yet Wartime feels a little brighter. However there are some uncomfortable moments in it, such as where Trish explains her feelings towards to her new man to her son or Timmy's inquisitive questioning about 'faggots', but moments are few.
Acting across the cast is excellent with a fine performance from Alison Janney as Trish and whilst squeaky voiced Shirley Henderson can often be annoying in this she is almost endearing. It is a dark film and while it never shocks out right, it does venture to the borderline. And while it's not laugh out loud there are some funny moments in it. You don't have to be familiar with Happiness to enjoy this film, even if it's a typical audience divider film, it works well on it's on. Nor do you have to be a Solondz fan to enjoy this, though those that are will relish the film even more.
More of my reviews at iheartfilms.weebly.com
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Welcome to another indie dramedy of quirky characters, this time
courtesy of quirky indie director, Todd Solondz. Part black comedy,
part drama with a message, I think Solondz wants it both ways. I saw
the film at the IFC cinema in NYC and the two friends I was with found
the blend of comedy and tragedy to be highly effective. Except for a
few bits here and there and decent acting, I couldn't agree with my
friends at all.
Life During Wartime begins with an intense conversation at a restaurant between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and her husband Alan (Michael Kenneth Williams). Joy, an underweight vegetarian who enjoys playing folk songs on her guitar, works with ex-cons and Alan is apparently a reformed crack addict. Joy is suddenly disappointed when a waitress recognizes Alan, who is still making obscene phone calls, and curses him out. It's supposed to be amusing as Alan blubbers inside the restaurant about how hard he's been trying to reform himself. Joy has had enough, so she heads to Florida to visit her sister, Trish (Allison Janney). Joy is plagued by visions of her first boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens aka Pee Wee Herman) who committed suicide. Another unfunny bit is Joy castigating the phantom Andy about trying to kill himself with a paper bag, as he might not actually die and end up as a 'vegetable'. The same discussion happens later on between husband Alan, who also eventually kills himself, and ends up as Phantom #2 in Joy's disturbed mind.
Trish, another dysfunctional family member, is divorced from Bill who is now just getting out of prison for molesting young boys. There's more unfunny black comedy when Trish confides in her 12 year old son, Timmy (about to be Bar Mitzvahed) about how wet she gets thinking about her new boyfriend Harvey (Michel Lerner). Solondz juxtaposes the kooky but attractive Trish with the overweight Harvey and clearly is mocking his characters as we see Trish (towering over Harvey), passionately kissing him in a parking garage. Later, there's a joke about how Harvey voted for Bush and McCain but only because they supported Israel (Harvey makes it clear that he will eventually return to Israel when he's about to die).
Things get more serious when Timmy returns home after a kid at school mocks him about his pedophile father (information about the father is readily available over the internet). Trish comforts Timmy as he expresses his fears about being victimized by pedophiles. Unfortunately, Solodnz seems to enjoy putting in suggestions of anal penetration into the mouth of Timmy which doesn't ring true for a 12 year old.
Joy decides to visit the third sister, Helen, a former poet turned screenwriter in California. Helen is neurotic as the rest of her sisters and can't seem to take the pressure of success. She has a melt down in front of Joy complaining about the difficulties of being Keanu Reeves' girlfriend and being the victim of a stalker. Joy eventually calls husband Alan who has already killed himself with a gun in their apartment. We don't actually see the return to New York but we know she's found Alan's body after she has visions once again of him, after returning to Florida.
There are two final scenes leading to the film's climax. First Bill returns to the family home where he locates older son's Billy's address at college. Bill visits the older son at his dorm room where he admits that despite therapy in prison, his demons have not gone away and he's still a pedophile. When Bill asks his son what's his major in school, Billy replies 'anthropology'. It seems he's studying (of all things) the homosexual orientation of bonobo monkeys (Billy finds that incest between the monkeys is a natural thing!). Maybe I'm reading too much into this scene but perhaps Billy has a thing for his father (he does make it clear that he wants his father to be back in the family's lives but the father, a broken man, walks out forever). Why does Solondz keep undercutting our sympathies for the characters? The bit about the father's love for gum drops, just seems nonsensical.
Finally, there's Timmy's adult-like conversation with Harvey where his mother's suitor tries to comfort the boy over his fear of pedophilia. Again, the way in which Timmy's verbalizes his fears, doesn't seem like it could come from the mouth of a 12 year old. Timmy mistakes Harvey's comforting moves as an advance by someone about to molest him. As a result, Trish believes Harvey to be an actual pedophile and sends him home packing. Later, Timmy apologizes to Harvey's son Mark who informs him that his father is moving to Israel (presumably to die).
Life During Wartime features one laugh-out-loud character and that's Harvey's son, the nerdy computer specialist who believes China will take over the world. All the actors acquit themselves well here, especially Dylan Riley Snyder as Timmy, who despite the inappropriate language, manages to effect an aura of maturity, well beyond his chronological age.
Solodnz can't make up his mind whether he sympathizes with his characters or has contempt for them. Somehow all the quirkiness didn't endear me to any of them. In the end, Life During Wartime, with its theme of forgiveness, falls short of being effective drama, precisely because its characters are so one-dimensional. And as a comedy, much of the humor is designed to titillate, but unfortunately produces few laughs.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I haven't reviewed a movie before, but after seeing this tonight, and
seeing the reviews posted here, I felt it was necessary. I haven't seen
the other movies referred to here (Welcome to the Dollhouse and
Happiness), so take that into account.
This post may contain spoilers, as I think it's important to discuss the themes of the movie in context of its effectiveness, but I haven't, in my mind, given away important information that would spoil the ending or reveal a twist, as the guidelines suggest.
Positives: I thought the movie was visually engaging and there were interesting camera angles that added to the content of the scene. It seemed very thoughtfully directed and kept the viewers attention through lots of dialog and very little actual movement.
Negatives: This movie seemed overtly saturated and fixated on pedophilia and subtle shockery. Like an 8 year old cussing out grandma at Thanksgiving, once you step out of the moment you realize that there is some truly bizarre stuff in here. A mom telling her 12 year old son about getting "wet" on a date with a "real" man. There are tons of places where the line gets crossed between mother/son, and implied between father/son. Overtly sexual, pedophilic, and implicitly incestuous, there aren't many redeeming qualities to the themes of this movie. I've enjoyed dark movies, but I do not see the point of this one. It's as conflicted as it is shocking and, subtle as it is disturbing.
The movie is thought provoking along the lines of forgiveness and has some merit there. It provides ironic wit by adding lines like "an eye for an eye" (Jewish family). But overall this theme is dirtied, grimed, rusted and nearly lost in the overtness of it's otherwise perverse obsessions.
There is not a whole lot of depth to the characters. In some parts the dialog was excessively cheesy. Overall the characters seemed convincing, but utterly lost and dim in the light of changed perspective or growth (partly due to a very abrupt ending). Awkward is a very nice way to describe a lot of the interactions here--it is that at best. Hugely uncomfortable (mother-in-law sitting right next to me) with age- inappropriate interactions happening left and right. I did, however, find excellent ironic humor including Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) in a role as a ghost and ex-lover of a relationally confused character. There were other dark ironies that did make me kind of chuckle, but mixed between moments of shock and queasiness.
I'd argue that the dilemma of forgiveness developed in this movie could be much more easily related in an Aesop's fable, or from somewhere in the Torah, but if you prefer to wade through sexually perverse, disturbingly inappropriate movies to get your 'moral of the story' then this movie may be for you, otherwise I'm not sure what you'd get from it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Life During Wartime is Todd Solondz's highly polished but lackluster
sequel to Happiness.
Now separated from her imprisoned, child molesting husband (Claran Hinds), Trish (Allison Janney) falls in love with the very normal Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner) whom she plans on marrying so that her life can get back on track now that she's left New Jersey and began a fresh start in Miami. Meanwhile her sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) tries to escape her string of failed relationships by seeking refuge in Miami only to be haunted by ghosts of her past. Terrified she will end up like her sister and mother, Joy jets to Los Angeles to visit with her self absorbed, successful sister, Helen (Alley Sheedy), who offers her little hope of guidance because she is suffering from the crushing weight of her own success. Trish's husband is released from jail and sets out to reunite himself with his sons only to run into Charlotte Rampling in a bar one night for probably the most riveting and highly charged scene in which she quickly cuts to the chase and seduces him into a one night stand. In the end happiness is never achieved. Trish doesn't marry Harvey because Timmy misconstrues his affection for child molestation in what has to be the most unbelievable of the final acts.
Ultimately, Life During Wartime explores the themes of betrayal and forgiveness. Can Timmy forgive his father for being a pedophile as he forgave his mother for lying to him when she told him his father was dead? Timmy's quest for answers come as his Bar Mitzvah approaches. He asks his mother, are pedophiles terrorists? In response she asks, are you saying you would forgive the 911 terrorists? His answer, well, not those terrorists because they're dead.
Solondz is known for his quirky characters on the verge of an emotional breakdown however remaining completely detached from each other. Happiness remains the superior of the two films, although Life is more polished in its production. Perhaps that is what is missing. Happiness and Palindromes captured the rawness of movies made famous in the 1970's with similar musical overtones. In Life, Solondz feels more Hollywood, less Indie. Even the performances, although all are exceptional, miss the mark of their original actors, particularly Sheedy's, Helen and Henderson's, Joy.
I don't understand why Solondz made the sequel. New characters were created for no apparent reason and most are left to fade away off camera like some bad Greek tragedy. Missing is the dark humor he so brightly captured in the desperate interactions and inherent depression of its characters. The situations are not funny but drawn out and tedious, particularly the scene with Bill and his son in his college dorm.
I do commend Solondz for taking the chance with a new cast. Unfortunately, it is the material that pales the most in comparison.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The last words of this film for me were absolute perfection. While this
film did have its flaws, the things it got right made up for all of
them. There are some profound ideas in this film that can be overlooked
if you're too focused on the bizarre storyline. But perhaps ideas like
this can only be accurately portrayed with content as explicit as this.
Solondz's films are exactly what they appear to be. They hide nothing,
and I think that's what turns people off. People want a fantasy. They
don't want to see backdrops of Taco Bell parking lots and they
certainly don't want to hear about pedophilia or about the sort of
unhappy talk they hear in their own families hoisted up on the big
screen. I admit I didn't really care for the 'ghost' sequences but they
were certainly entertaining. The timing and subtlety really shines
here, every actor was excellent. I really didn't know what would happen
next-one of the big reasons I am a Solondz fan. That facet alone makes
his films true to life. People call this a bad 'vanity project' but I
I laughed out loud, I was shocked, amazed, and at the end of the last scene I was literally breathless.
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