By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
The “life during wartime” in the title of Todd Solondz’s new film might refer to the ongoing wars in which America finds itself these days. But it might also be Solondz’s opinion of the perpetual human condition.
“Life During Wartime” is something of a sequel to the director’s 1998 film “Happiness,” another title of great ambiguity. Happiness is just what the characters lacked in that film, and things haven’t improved much in the interim.
The twist is that none of the actors from “Happiness” remain in place, although many of the characters are the same. Three sisters are at the center of this world, all of them making various levels of disaster out of their lives.
Joy (tiny-voiced Shirley Henderson) is a lost soul, visited by the ghost (Paul Reubens, the former Pee-wee Herman) of a man who committed suicide over her. He wants to reunite.
Joy visits her sister Trish (Allison Janney) in Florida. Trish has moved there to get over the memory of her pedophile ex-husband (Ciaran Hinds, from “There Will Be Blood”), unaware that he has just been released from prison.
The other sister, less seen, is a self-centered screenwriter (Ally Sheedy). Perhaps understandably, she doesn’t want much to do with her family.
Other characters file through the sunny spaces of this movie, including the chubby but affectionate man (Michael Lerner) Trish has been dating.
Solondz, who made his first splash with the kid-perspective “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” is also very much concerned with how the children are affected by these things; Dylan Riley Snyder, as Trish’s perplexed son, is especially good at registering how bewildering it is that grownups won’t confront or explain certain things.
All the actors are strong — something that’s true of Solondz’s films in general. Every scene has an intense focus (and often a scream-inducing black humor) that forces actors to bear down and really face the music — however horrible the music might be.
And some of it is pretty horrible. I admire this film; I think it’s very well-observed. Some critics have complained that Solondz only shows the awful sides of human nature, which is true.
That makes for a somewhat steamrolling experience, but it doesn’t make the movie bad. For hearts and flowers, try a Hallmark card. For life during wartime, try this pessimistic film.