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Separated from her incarcerated husband Bill (Hinds), Trish (Janney) is about to be married again. Bill is a pedophile, so Trish couldn't be more excited to have Harvey (Lerner), a "normal" father figure for her two sons. But when Bill is released from prison and the boys finally meet their future stepdad, the family is forced to decide whether to forgive or to forget. Trish's sister, the virginal, angelic Joy (Henderson), is also haunted by ghosts of lovers past. On leave from her degenerate husband, Allen (Williams), and her job at a New Jersey correctional facility, Joy unwittingly leaves behind a trail of shame and exposed secrets wherever she goes. In one of the film's most stylized sequences, the image of Joy walking the dark streets of Miami in her nightgown maintains her innocence against a backdrop of self-affliction and desire.Written by
Let's hope the next Solondz film isn't a "spiritual sequel"
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 Potter.
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.
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