DVD Tuesday: “Life During Wartime” a humanistic counterpoint to “Happiness”

Todd Solondz his a rich history of making polarizing films.  He has given us some of the most detestable characters ever seen on screen, some of the most queasy and uneasy films to watch, and he consistently reminds us of our deepest failings.  He is absolutely no fun, but his newest film, Life During Wartime, strikes an odd chord. It’s certainly his most heartfelt, melancholic film to date, perhaps most of all because it follows the characters from his pitch-black comedy Happiness, 10 years down the line, just to see how they’ve changed. It is a beautiful and moving film – if you can stand to watch it.

If you haven’t seen Happiness, you will be completely lost during Wartime. The opening, both a tongue-in-cheek reference to the earlier film and a new, impeccably scripted scene, will leave you in the dark if you are out of the loop. Happiness told the story of three sisters and those connected to them as they sought the titluar ideal. It was repulsive to watch, and the nausea it evoked was intensified by the mix of comedy and sympathy it solicited. One scene in particular is shot and edited in such a way that you are on the edge of rooting for a sexual predator to drug and rape his prey.

Life During Wartime catches up with the characters 10 years later, imagining how they would have dealt with the post-9/11 America.  The wave of terrorist attacks, the wars in which we embroiled ourselves, the Bush regime, even just ten years of mundane living.  In fact, Solondz shows that change by replacing all of the original actors (a star-studded cast including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara, and others) with completely new ones (Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, Michael Kenneth Williams).

With the new cast in town, Wartime unfolds as an idiosyncratic, challenging, very uncomfortable, but disarmingly tender. In the past, Solondz has taken characters and pushed them to their moral breaking points to demonstrate our own moral failings, to draw a self-realization out of us in an almost accusatory fashion. Here, he gives us the same characters, but their situation isn’t so much that they are sinning, but that they have sinned. They have made mistakes. They are trying to be better. Can we forgive them?

Forgiveness is at the heart of Life During Wartime as exemplified by one poignant scene: Youngster Timmy has become very anxious that he could do something unforgivable.  His mother reassures him that she will always forgive him, that someone will always be able to forgive him. He responds with “Can we ever forgive the 9/11 terrorists?” To which she flatly responds that we can’t.

For a director willing to take on such touchy material, it’s a refreshing, fitting theme to match it with the power of forgiveness.  Happiness shocked with the unseemly; Life During Wartime shocks with the power of the gracious.

-Ben Creech

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