In revisiting his darkly comic 1998 ensembler “Happiness,” Todd Solondz may have made his best film with “Life During Wartime.” The distinctive, boundary-pushing writer-director has had the eccentric inspiration to resurrect the same central characters a decade later, but using entirely different actors. Winning result, which reels off one riveting scene after another, stands as both a unique sort-of sequel and a film that requires no prior reference points; it’s entirely satisfying either way, though even richer if you recall the antecedent. The resolutely niche filmmaker has never had a real breakout success and the confrontational nature of his latest won’t change that fact, but his loyal following will be buoyed by this strong effort.
A rare collection of sexual quagmires and perversions lay at the heart of “Happiness,” and a most impressive aspect of the new film is how it so piercingly examines the residue and continuing ramifications of those dilemmas a decade later. Best remembered, no doubt, is the pedophile father, Dylan Baker’s Bill Maplewood, a shrink and father of three kids who can’t keep his mind or hands off young boys.
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At the story’s core, however, are the Jordan sisters, Joy, Trish and Helen. Intense opening scenes have Joy (Shirley Henderson, Moaning Myrtle in the “Harry Potter” films) dubiously listening as Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams, “The Wire”) urgently insists he’s overcome drugs and his overall waywardness … well, almost. Trish (Allison Janney), now living in Florida, is amazed to find herself responding emotionally and sexually — presumably for the first time since Bill was carted off — to a portly, aging but irresistibly nice recent divorced gent, Harvey (Michael Lerner), a secondary character from Solondz’s first film, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
But remembrances of traumas past pose barriers to present happiness. Joy, not inclined to give Allen the benefit of the doubt — “Once a perv, always a perv,” she opines to her mother, Mona (Renee Taylor) — receives visitations from the ghost of her former suitor, Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide over her and tries to get her to reconsider her opinion of him.
But the most compelling character this time around is Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish’s second son, who’s about to have his bar mitzvah and become, according to Jewish tradition, a man. In this light, he’s horrified to learn that his father Bill is not dead, as his mother had told him, but has just been released from prison. Tormented by his schoolmates, he questions Trish tearfully about exactly what pederasts do to boys and whether the behavior is inherited. “I don’t want to be a faggot!” he shrieks, while also unable to deal with his mother’s deceit.
Quiet and alone, Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is irresistibly drawn to making some sort of contact with his sons, the other being college student Billy (Chris Marquette). At a hotel along the way, he has an extraordinary sexual encounter with a lonely, chillingly blunt woman (Charlotte Rampling), which alone is worth the price of admission; the writing here and the performances by both actors are spellbinding.
Joy’s visit to Los Angeles to see her now ragingly successful if impossibly overwrought TV-writer sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) perhaps puts too fine a point on one of the central themes of both “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime,” which concerns who people are vs. who they pretend to be. But the interlude is fully justified by a moment in which one character threatens to attack another with an Emmy statuette.
Solondz doesn’t shrink from the implications of everything he sets up, as the climactic scenes fully carry through on the emotional provocations of the most intractable problems. Nearly all the resolutions are terribly sad, leaving scars that the filmmaker might care to re-examine in another 10 years’ time with still another cast, and yet mostly preordained by the nature of the characters and the ways they’ve chosen to behave.
Formally, the film is deep-dish pleasure. Vet cinematographer Ed Lachman (using the Red camera system for the first time, and whose past work is saluted in a prominently visible poster for “I’m Not There”) enables Solondz to raise his visual game to a new level; the richly colored compositions are as bold as the dialogue. The fact that the production was largely filmed in Puerto Rico will likely amaze even native Floridians, so seamless is the match. Music track selections are surprising and opportune.
The actors come off superbly. Always so good with sassy, somewhat jaundiced characters, Janney shines as a still-attractive middle-aged woman almost too eager to embrace a new beginning, while Lerner, a fine character actor not often given such dimensional roles, matches her with a wonderful performance. Henderson does neurotic very well indeed and flourishes in her across-the-mortal-divide exchanges with the fine Reubens.
But most heart-wrenching of all is young, freckle-faced Snyder, playing a still prepubescent kid forced to cope with the messiest of adult problems and faced with potential psychological issues he can’t possibly digest.
For the record, in “Happiness,” Joy was played by Jane Adams, Helen by Lara Flynn Boyle, Trish by Cynthia Stevenson, Mona by Louise Lasser, Allen by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andy by Jon Lovitz and Billy by Rufus Reed.