The latest film by Todd Solondz is total critic-porn. I’m not sure whether or not broader audiences will embrace it, but then again, with this director, one never can be.

A sequel of sorts to 1998’s HAPPINESS, LIFE DURING WARTIME similarly kicks off with an awkward restaurant date, once again starting close on the face of neurotic Joy Jordan, whose trembling manner suggests that she is always on the verge of tears. Joy is played in this film by Shirley Henderson, though she was played by Jane Adams in the first film, but it’s not that jarring an actor-change, as these things go. The same cannot be said for her date, Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), a scar-faced black man who mentions a past in which he smoked crack and helped out former gang members.

In HAPPINESS, that same character – sort of – was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

For those who haven’t seen the earlier movie, this will not be an issue. For those who have, one hopes that they also managed to catch PALINDROMES, in which Solondz established his principles of recasting, by having multiple actresses play the same character, depending on how she perceived herself in any given scenario. What with the intrusion into both those films of characters from WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, it’s clear that Solondz is establishing his own mini-universe of sorts, one that, even more than Kevin Smith’s, might deserve the title of “askew-niverse.” And like Smith, it could be argued that the auteur sometimes threatens to disappear up his own ass.

There is, however, more going on here than just dirty humor. The complete recasting of every major player gives a unique cinematic shorthand for the ways in which people change over the course of a decade...and in more ways than one might realize at first. Coming out of the movie, for example, I was convinced that Allison Janney’s Trish Jordan and Michael Lerner’s Harvey Wiener were the only major characters not to be recast, as a way of showing that these individuals had not moved on sufficiently with their lives. Then I went to imdb, and I was completely wrong: Cynthia Stevenson had originally played Trish, with Bill Buell the first Harvey. Already, and possibly without even trying, the movie has taught me a quick lesson in questioning memory and perception.

I do not believe this to be an accident. Forgiveness and forgetting are explicit themes of the material. You don’t have to be a critic to figure those out, since characters make specific mention more than once, particularly in the context of young Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who prepares for his Bar Mitzvah, and is convinced that once he “becomes a man,” he’ll know everything that grown-ups do.

What he doesn’t know is that his father, declared to be dead by most everyone, has actually just been released from prison. Avid movie buffs may remember the dad character, Bill, as the most notable of many “sympathetic pedophiles” who frequently occurred in the plots of art-house films during the late ‘90s. Once played in a complex manner by Dylan Baker (Dr. Connors in the three SPIDER-MAN movies), he is now a dour, burdened man for a harsher era, with a newly acquired Irish accent courtesy of his new performer Ciaran Hinds (subtle shot at the recent actions of the Catholic church, maybe?).

The wartime metaphors are belabored. Reformed (or is he?) pedophile Bill talks about how he tried to “stay the course” of normal family life, to which his eldest son responds that he should have “cut and run.” Ally Sheedy’s Helen (previously played by Lara Flynn Boyle), laments the fact that we’re living during wartime, even as she sends emails on her iPhone while sitting poolside at a Hollywood mansion; the only sign of war here is a large framed poster of a Palestinian protester in front of an Israeli tank. And even this is little more than an accessory, an act of rebellion against sister Trish, who’s willing to date Republicans solely because they support Israel. Meanwhile, Joy writes a song non-ironically comparing her own personal life to Vietnam.

These things are obvious, and I believe they are intended to be overly obvious; low-hanging fruit for the armchair critic. Dig deeper, and it’s the underlying themes of misunderstandings and overreactions that serves as a better parallel to the modern wartime era. Metaphorically, these characters fight by asymmetrical means, undermining each other with small acts of verbal terrorism, rather than declaring outright hostilities.

At the same time, the recasting allows for the conceptual notion that even when we think we’ve changed, we haven’t; played by new actors, the characters nonetheless revert to old patterns, or have trouble fighting their natural worst instincts, not unlike a nation that tries to make peace but continually goes to war. Visually, the inner decay is manifest in deliberately ugly cinematography: though shot on the Red digital camera, much of the movie looks like aged, yellowing celluloid left over from the ‘60s, giving some of the sets the appearance of vintage postcards aging badly.

Solondz does like his uncomfortable moments, and certainly, there may be some shifting in seats from audience members, but not, I think, out of boredom. Moments here and there are a bit stagy, in dialogue and in shooting, but there does seem to be a correlation between things that feel stagy and characters being phony. Simpler laughs are to be had as well, like a bit where Trish explains to her daughter what prescription drugs can be substituted for another, or the fact that said daughter is signed up for after-school karaoke class, of all things.

I still have questions about the movie’s portrayal of dead characters – at least two appear wearing black suits, and disappear to end the argument (this enables the character of Andy, killed off in the first film as played by Jon Lovitz, to played by Paul Reubens, whose real-life baggage adds gravitas to his portrayal of a spirit seeking another chance). But there’s a final one I’m not sure about...whether similar iconography means he has actually died offscreen.

That I’m still wondering pleases me more, perhaps, than an easy answer.


Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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