Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Life During Wartime
Todd Solondz, director & writer
Starring: Shirley Henderson (Joy Jordan), Allison Janney (Trish Jordan Maplewood), Michael Lerner (Harvey Wiener), Ciaran Hinds (Bill Maplewood), Paul Reubens (Andy), Charlotte Rampling (Jacqueline), Ally Sheedy (Helen Jordan), Chris Marquette (Billy Maplewood), Michael Kenneth Williams (Allen), Rich Pecci (Mark Wiener), Dylan Riley Snyder (Timmy Maplewood)
Todd Solondz’s dark journey through America’s suburban bourgeoisie continues in Life During Wartime. Returning to the Jordan family, who were the subjects of his 1998 success Happiness, the writer-director scores an immediate theatrical coup by recasting his leads.
The waif-like naïve liberal Joy Jordan, previously played by Jane Adams is now performed in a solid, less ditzy style by Shirley Henderson; Cynthia Stevenson has been replaced by the more sardonic Allison Janney as Trish, the mother of three children and the most stable of the sisters, while the role of the arty, sexy Helen has been taken over by Ally Sheedy, who out-does Lara Flynn Boyle as a neurotic narcissist.
Times were tough for the New Jersey born trio in the last film and they’re not much better now. Joy’s romantic life, already bad in Happiness, has become—if possible—worse. She’s now married to Allen, whose perverted past is making him suicidal.
Joy decides to visit Trish, who relocated in Florida after her husband
Bill Maplewood, was revealed to be as a pedophile in Happiness. Trish has finally found a nice man, Harvey, who is conservative and Jewish and apparently really loves her.
Trish has been dealing with Bill’s scandal, which resulted in a prison sentence, by saying that he’s dead. In fact, Bill is about to be released—and he’s now being performed by Ciaran Hinds who offers a gravitas that Dylan Baker didn’t give to the role a dozen years ago. Apparently cured of his homosexual leanings, Bill has an encounter with Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling) in a hotel bar and bedroom that is astonishingly downbeat and mature for Solondz. Their bout of sad, alienated sex followed by Bill’s robbing of Jacqueline’s purse offers a moment of existential tragedy to the narrative.
Trish and Bill’s younger son Timmy is about to have his bar-mitzvah—but he’s haunted by fears of pederasts, after discovering the truth about his Dad. Joy is haunted, too, and quite literally, by Andy, her former boyfriend, who committed suicide. Casting Paul Reubens, the former Pee Wee Herman and real-life sex offender as Andy (replacing Happiness’ Jon Lovitz) may strike some as an over-the-top move by Solondz.
Life proceeds vertiginously for the Jordans as Timmy’s bar mitzvah approaches. Will Trish and Harvey’s romance succeed? Will Joy and Allen get back together? Will Bill Maplewood cope well with living in the real world again?
In a Todd Solondz film, don’t bet on anything going well. Life During Wartime is a very dark comedy. Issues of fatherhood and homosexuality haunt the film. Solondz has claimed that the film is more “political” than his earlier work.
Life During Wartime is a typically odd film for Solondz. Yes, it’s well made and performed. And you’re not bored—though you may be offended (which would please the director). If you love dysfunctional families, the Jordans may be the poster children. Should you see it? Hmm…up to you. It’s well done but it may not be your cuppa tea.