19 Feb 2010

Life During Wartime - Todd Solondz

Release date is 23rd April, so its way ahead of time, but here is Life During Wartime review. Good wholesome fun for all the family.


This could get complicated. Life During Wartime is American director Todd Solondz’s follow-up to his own 1999 film Happiness, the blackest of black comedies about loneliness, desperation and also paedophilia.

This is far from a conventional sequel though, despite returning to the same characters and many of the same themes of the original. For a start, Solondz has entirely recast the film with some inspired choices, particularly Andy, played by Jon Lovitz in Happiness, now portrayed by the unsettling presence of Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman himself). That’s despite Andy having killed himself in the original. In its disregard for the rules of film sequels, Life During Wartime is often thrilling.

In using a new cast, Solondz also provides two boons for his new film. Firstly, those watching who are aware of Happiness will enjoy an extra level of complexity by watching completely fresh interpretations. This is exemplified in the character of Bill, the paedophile father, who is released from prison at the start of the film. In Happiness, if memory serves correct, he was a nervous ball of energy, just barely able to conceal his secret life, but for all the horror of his actions, his story was still used as a source of humour.

In Life During Wartime, Bill, played by the excellent-as-ever Ciaran Hinds, is a far more broken man, almost a blank slate, but the performance is all the darker and more troubling for it. The scene when he confronts his son Billy, now at university, is the dark heart of this film and though mesmerising to watch, it is truly disturbing. In eliciting our sympathy for Bill, the film takes the audience further than many viewers will want to go but it is perhaps its bravest achievement.

Importantly though, the fresh approach allows Life During Wartime to stand on its own, to be appreciated even without knowledge of the original. The overall tone also changes, despite sharing a lot of the shock humour and sickness of Happiness. Life During Wartime is bleaker and far more concerned with facing the past over dealing with the present. From Joy and her frequent visions of Andy to her sister Trish, who implores Joy to live in Florida because “down here, it’s so easy to forget”, none of the characters can escape their histories or truly change as people.

As a satire of modern America, the film isn’t entirely successful. The third sister, Helen, has made it big in Hollywood, complete with off-screen boyfriend “Keanu” but her wired, incredibly narcissistic presence borders on caricature. Suggested ideas about terrorism and the Iraq War also feel like little more than background noise, a new back-drop to hang the characters on.

But the film still showcases the director’s courageous instinct to confront social awkwardness and the darker psyche. It also demonstrates that when done with compassion, intelligence and understanding, few, if any, subjects are out of bounds for humour. Be warned that Life During Wartime is far from an easy ride, a sadder cousin to its predecessor, but it will also be unlike anything else you will see this year.  

Alistair Kleebauer 

Trailer:(No trailer currently available so here's a small interview with Todd Solondz about the film)

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