It's been 12 years since Todd Solondz' suburban dramedy Happiness arrived in theaters. To be honest, I couldn't remember much about the movie other than I had an adverse reaction to it. I was surprised by its ability to look unblinkingly on topics that were repugnant (including a seemingly normal psychiatrist dad who's actually a pedophile), but I had put most of the details out of my mind. Now that I've seen Solondz' sequel Life During Wartime, I can definitely say the filmmaker has made a compatible, equally uncomfortable follow-up.
The same things that set Happiness apart from the mainstream hold true for Wartime. Solondz is at home finding the eccentric, all-too human fallacies in domestic life, and casting a burning spotlight on them. At the center of this world once more are the three Jordan sisters, played here by a different set of actresses. Oldest sister Trish (Allison Janney) has relocated with her children from suburban Jersey to suburban Florida. She's now dating nice guy Harvey (Michael Lerner), who's leagues removed from her ex-husband/convicted child molester Bill (Ciaran Hinds).
Middle sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) has become a successful, self-absorbed writer in California and is barely present in her family's life. And youngest sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) is taking a break in Florida alongside sis and mom, but is haunted by visions of a previous boyfriend who killed himself. She must also contend with her ex-con husband, who hasn't been able to give up some of his bad habits. Thrown into the mix as well are Trish's two young kids - Chloe and Timmy. They've been led to believe dad's dead, but Timmy suspects otherwise after his classmate brings up some disturbing history. There's also Harvey's grown son, a strange cat who warns that despite the complicated, everyday happenings, the real problem of the future lies in China.
Basically, it's an intentionally messy movie that dares you to stick through its uglier aspects to consider the broader issues - what are the limits of tolerance and forgiveness? Which things are unforgiveable? What's worth forgiving but not forgetting? Or is it better to forget and not forgive? And between freedom and democracy, or family, which way do you go?
This isn't a movie for everyone. It's for people who loved Solondz' previous work in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse and want to see what he's up to next, and fans of independent films with an original, uncompromising, controversial spirit. The vision isn't as new as it was a dozen years ago (plenty of HBO and Showtime series use the most shocking aspects of suburban life as their premise), but those who want to see these type of films should find something to dig into here. For the rest of the filmgoing public, proceed with caution.
Are you a Solondz fan? Do you want to see this? Or was Happiness enough of the Jordan family for a lifetime? This one definitely has some "global" ambitions to it that I didn't notice as much in Happiness, but I'm still most impressed by Welcome to the Dollhouse, which was in my opinion more direct and succinct and funny.