Count me among the great admirers of Todd Solondz’ Happiness. Some viewers complained that Solondz mocked his characters, but I never got that. As far as I could see, that was his achievement. Without passing judgment, he investigated the failures of some of the least among us — the failed songwriter, the unlucky in love — and dug out the humanity among the worst of us — the obscene phone caller, the pedophile. The result was an uneasy mix of tone. It wasn’t quite comedy and it wasn’t quite melodrama. You weren’t sure whether to be amused or appalled, and the fact that Solondz could elicit a horrified titter of recognition at some of the most base material showed that he kept the human in human behavior.
Life During Wartime is an uneven sequel to Happiness that picks up 10 years after the previous film left off. It features many of the same characters but none of the same actors. For one thing, Solondz probably couldn’t afford them. For another, he seems to enjoy the dissonance that’s provided by casting, for example, a black man (Michael K. Williams from The Wire) in the role of Allen, which was originally occupied by a sweaty, pasty Philip Seymour Hoffman. It had been long enough since I watched Happiness that the effect was kind of a tickle against my memory. It’s not an unpleasant sensation — viewing it feels not unlike having a dream about people you knew a long, long time ago.
The two most memorable characters are back — the telephone pervert and the child-molesting pervert — and they’ve been transformed and humbled in the intervening years. Allen is trying to salvage his relationship with Joy Jordan (Shirley Henderson), an effort that is bringing him limited success but unlimited shame. Bill Maplewood (Ciárin Hinds) is out of prison and trying to track down a family that doesn’t want him anymore. Allen’s trajectory here is desultory, but the material dealing with Bill, regretful but not rehabilitated, tracking down his college-student son, is powerful and feels true. The dynamic in those scenes is genuine and weird, and Solondz doesn’t oversell it with irony or undercut it with gags.
The rest of the film is short on that kind of seriousness, but it has its moments. I appreciated a sad one-liner about someone’s laserdisc collection. Charlotte Rampling is terrific in what amounts to little more than a ferocious cameo. But all the time Solondz spends puttering around with Bill’s ex-wife Trish (Alison Janney) and her young son and older, unlikely, Jewish lover (Michael Lerner) doesn’t pay off, in part because Solondz uses it as little more than support for a long-telegraphed damned-if-you-do joke about overprotective parenting. It seems like it might be fun to see Paul Reubens play a ghost, or Ally Sheedy act out a role as a self-absorbed screenwriter, but both characters are throwaways, incidental, underwritten, and under-directed script-fillers.
And what to make of the film’s title? It’s a Talking Heads reference, of course, but Solondz says it was inspired directly by a remark Rudy Giuliani made after the World Trade Center attacks, pragmatically urging grieving New Yorkers to “go shopping.” Not entirely indefensible, given the very real problem of a panic-driven economic collapse, but it got under the director’s skin as an example of willful detachment from terrible realities. Trish verbalizes the dilemma facing some Jewish lefties when she excuses her boyfriend’s Bush/Cheney voting record by noting that he did it “for Israel” — at times like this, a Jew’s heritage can feel like a conflict of interest. (There’s also this: Trish’s child-molesting ex? Not a Jew.) Beyond underscoring some largely unaddressed questions about Jewish identity, I don’t know if making this an explicitly post-9/11 scenario really adds meaning or context to the characters’ actions or attitudes. More to the point, it’s just another way to bum us out.