It's probably helpful to know going in that Todd Solondz's new movie is a sequel to his 1998 film Happiness, but with all the original roles played by different actors. I'd like to tell you that Life During Wartime works whether you know this or not, but I had no idea the first time I watched it, and consequently spent half the time wondering why the two movies had so many similarities—obscene phone caller, child molester, lachrymose opening set in a restaurant, Solondz's signature dismal mordancy. Was it another trick, like the kind he played in Palindromes (in which the same character was played by eight different actresses)? Was it a commentary on our expectations, like the joyless Storytelling? Could it be a conscious effort by the writer/director to acknowledge that Happiness was the last movie he made that everyone liked?
But no. It's none of those things. It's a sequel. And like its predecessor, Life During Wartime is a masterpiece of gallows humanism camouflaged by withering bleakness of tone and a pervasive atmosphere of dread and sorrow. And yes, it's brutally funny. Of course it is.
Once you do a bit of reconfiguring—Shirley Henderson for Jane Adams, Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from The Wire) for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney for Cynthia Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds for Dylan Baker, Ally Sheedy for Lara Flynn Boyle, and a most inspired Paul Reubens for Jon Lovitz—the recasting stops being an issue and serves the story, which is about an extended family's attempts to reinvent their accursed lives, to put the past of rape, suicide, and perversion behind them and "forgive and forget" (the phrase is like a hollow mantra throughout). But even if they're played by different actors, these characters can never quarantine the past. They keep running away from it, and it keeps finding them. And ruining every single thing.
The scene is moved from the torpor of suburban New Jersey to the sun-glazed coma of suburban Florida. Everything is aqua and peach and stucco and horrendous upholstery and terrible clothes; it's like a visual representation of your third Valium of the day. Trish (Janney), the ex-wife of a jailed child molester, has moved with her kids—"The past is the past... Down here it's easier to forget everything"—and embraced both ostentatious Judaism (she wears a chai charm around her neck like a sandwich board) and a pharmacopoeia of antianxiety and pain- relief medication for the family. Her youngest son, Timmy, is preparing for his bar mitzvah when he learns that his father isn't dead. Angry and confused, he peppers Trish with questions about the specifics of pedophilia and fears that he, too, will become a "faggot." The scene between them, which begins with Trish necking a fistful of Klonopin, is an emblem of how Solondz's voice has developed since Happiness—it's funny and miserable in about 15 different ways, from the misbegotten earnestness and quaint language ("tushy") of Timmy's anxiety to the combination of frankness and misdirection with which Trish answers it. But underneath it all is the heartfelt terror of being forced to have such an appalling conversation. It makes the hollowness of Trish's attempts to start her life over (aided by religion and benzodiazepine) less pitiful, somehow. More forgivable. Forgive and forget.
But in that forgiveness lies a deeper inquiry. Where Happiness was content to wring ironic comedy from its characters' desperation, twisting the knife and mining our discomfort about laughing at such misery, Life During Wartime is a savage look at an America rotting from within the family unit. And where Solondz might once have been satisfied to observe the contradictions and hypocrisies of these folks, his lens has widened to capture a deeper human and social malaise brought about by these same characters' refusal to get real with each other or themselves.
In Happiness, Trish kept talking about "having it all," while her husband carefully raped children. In Wartime, she nakedly stares into the postcoital distance and declares, "Fuck family. Fuck motherhood. Fuck the kids. I just don't care anymore." It's her first entirely honest moment, and naturally, she apologizes two seconds later and never mentions it again. Her optimism is as much a shield as it is a badge, much like her Jewishness (totems of tribal faith appear throughout as quizzical counterpoints to the familial/cultural deracination going on all around; if Wartime is a sequel to Happiness, it's also a landsman of the Coens' A Serious Man)—and neither rings true. For Trish and her big doomed family, the strategy of forgive and forget, emphasis on the latter, breeds desperate loneliness: zombified children wandering through a nightmare Taco Bell/Pizza Hut landscape, terrified of life and starved for meaning in a dying world.
And laughs. Don't forget the laughs. You're going to need them.