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September 24, 2012

2

Life During Wartime

by Franz Patrick


Life During Wartime (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) were forced to reevaluate their relationship when their waitress recognized Allen’s voice as the pervert who harassed her some time ago. This came as a complete shock to Joy because she would never have pegged her husband for a sexual deviant. Meanwhile, Trish (Allison Janney) and Harvey (Michael Lerner) seemed to forge a genuine relationship even though he was far from her type. To Trish, Harvey symbolized a chance to finally become normal. After being married to a child molester (Ciarán Hinds), Harvey was ideal in comparison. Could Trish’ happiness last? Written and directed by Todd Solondz, “Life During Wartime,” a sequel to Solondz’ impressive and darkly comic “Happiness,” was a disappointment because each key event relied on shock value instead of genuine substance that we could roll around in and feel bad later on for enjoying it too much. For instance, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish’ son, asked his mother what male pedophiles did to other boys. Wanting to protect her son from the grizzly details, she claimed that when any man touched a boy, even if it was an accidental touch on the shoulder, that was called rape and he should seek help by screaming to the top of his lungs. That moment was funny. But what wasn’t so amusing was the fact that Timmy’s curiosity wasn’t developed in a meaningful way. A question was posed and answered but rarely brought up again even in a different form. The film’s power largely depended on recurring themes and character motivations–some were sad, others were twisted, while a select few felt very dirty and wrong. Since each scene felt more like a weekly comic strip, there was no build-up in momentum and the overall work fell flat, a superficial rumination on an edgier, darker predecessor. After the punchline had been delivered, it was onto the next scene with a new supposedly shocking material. The picture spent a lot of time with Joy having conversations with her dead ex-boyfriend (Paul Reubens) but not enough time with her sister named Helen (Ally Sheedy). The former was meandering, typical, and lacking in tension while the latter was fascinating because Helen was full of ugly self-loathing. Helen felt like she couldn’t keep up, in her words, with “the enormity of [her] success.” She was vile to others because, deep down, she thought she was better than everyone else just because she was a screenwriter. When the material focused on the three sisters, Joy, Trish, and Helen, the movie was effortlessly funny. Trish, at first glance, seemed the most normal but I found that, over time, Joy was the lucky one. Unlike Trish and Helen, Joy didn’t feel the need to steer conversations toward whatever was happening in her life just so that she would be reminded that her existence held meaning. Most importantly, “Life During Wartime” failed to stand on its own. The drama depended too much on the events that occurred in its predecessor. If the director felt the need to comment on what happened to the characters post-”Happiness,” he should have just opted for a rerelease with extended special features.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sep 25 2012

    Like you, I loved “Happiness”, in its own way. for its painful humor, and, I think, its willingness to engage with its troubled characters as complex people. “Life During Wartime” had almost none of that, in my opinion. Dark humor can be great, in forcing us to grapple with the problematic things in life, but if the movie loses track of its characters as (something resembling) “real people”, it creates a distance that undercuts the value of the supposed dark comedy.

    It’s been a couple of years since I saw this, but I seem to remember that the storyline with Allison Janney and her son was the one that worked least well for me.

    Reply
    • Sep 27 2012

      I agree with everything you just said. Coming into it, I expected to love it because I knew that Solondz can do dark comedy in a way that feels almost… wrong… but at the same time retaining a certain level of honesty so we still cared about the people on screen, even if they were “bad.” However, everything that could go wrong pretty much did in this movie. Halfway through, I began to feel a sinking sensation in my stomach that it was not going to get better. Despite my optimism, my gut reaction was right.

      Reply

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