||Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” (1998) was named ironically; the domestic “bliss” it portrayed was anything but. His sort-of sequel, on the other hand, has a more dead-on title. The characters in “Life During Wartime” are in a constant struggle simply to survive the horrors of their middle-class existence, and in typical Solondz fashion, their stories are spun in a grotesque, hallucinatory netherworld poised at the point where comedy and tragedy meet. You’re meant to gasp at their pain while stifling a laugh at how absurd they all are. It’s a perilous balancing act that the writer-director doesn’t quite pull off, though he’s populated it with an exceptional cast who do extraordinary work down the line.
“Wartime” takes up the characters of “Happiness” ten years later, played by a different cast. Chief among them are the three Jordan sisters. Joy (Shirley Henderson), a haunted-looking woman who will be literally so in time, is first seen at a restaurant with her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), who’s apologizing for his many failings. A sudden revelation sends her home to her mother (Renee Taylor), where she’s visited by the ghost of her former suitor Andy (Paul Reubens), who alternates between begging for another chance and berating her.
Soon Joy decamps to visit her sister Trish (Allison Janney) in Florida. Trish is the ex-wife of Bill Maplewood (Ciaran Hinds), the pedophile psychiatrist of the first film who’s been in prison. Trish has kept Bill’s fate a secret from her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who’s preparing for his bar mitzvah, telling the boy that his father is dead. Now, however, Bill has been released from prison, and is driven to visit his older son Billy (Chris Manquette) on his college campus. And Trish has taken up with a jovial divorcee, Harvey (Michael Lerner), whom she hopes to marry.
Joy will also travel to Los Angeles to see her other sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a harried television writer preparing to attend an Emmy Awards ceremony. Their time together vacillates between reunion and recrimination, and Andy makes another appearance—as does Allen, though much changed.
The script develops into a further tangle of emotional devastation as Timmy learns of his father’s crime and conviction and is tormented by the fear he might share Bill’s inclinations. A dinner at which Trish hosts Harvey and his opinionated son Mark (Rich Pecci) devolves into a disaster when Timmy has a conversation with his mother’s intended. Meanwhile Bill heads by bus to see Billy, but along the way he has an encounter with a thoroughly pragmatic woman (Charlotte Rampling) at a hotel bar.
That sequence between Hinds and Rampling is one of the film’s best, a moment in which two people stand—or lie—before us emotionally naked. There are other, similarly brilliant moments sprinkled throughout the film; Solondz writes some amazing dialogue.
But he wants the film not merely to sting viewers to tears over the characters’ sadness, but to laughter—or at least amused grimaces—over the clueless absurdity of their choices. And to achieve that he opts for an arch, deliberately paced style, accentuated by garish colors, that emphasizes the grotesquerie. That robs the film of some of its humanity; Solondz cultivates a mordantly analytical style that often comes across as condescending to the characters.
This is the sort of film that connoisseurs will appreciate for its peculiar tone, even as they recognize its problems, but mainstream viewers would find unbelievably affected and painful. You know which group you fall into.