Life During Wartime

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B

Awkward comedy is hugely popular these days. Larry David makes a darn good post-Seinfeld living by routinely embarrassing a version of himself on HBO. Steve Carell, as the consummate idiot boss, blunders through situations so uncomfortable, our only recourse is to bury our faces in our hands until the pain stops. These two, and others who play similar characters, are largely successful because we relate to them. They say the things we think but wouldn’t dare catch ourselves saying out-loud. Todd Solondz‘s characters on the other hand, while sublimely versed in awkwardness, are so entirely impossible to relate to, instead of burying our faces, our jaws drop and eyes bulge.

Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to the masterpiece-of-uncomfortableness — Happiness. The same characters return but this time around are played by different actors. I haven’t seen Happiness since the first and only time back in 1999. I would have benefited from a refresher. The characters came back quickly enough, but the different faces made it difficult to reconnect the new scenes to their past lives.

Happiness follows the lives and relationships of three sisters from New Jersey. Joy, the ironically named eldest is a forever-depressed, starving-musician with a penchant for attracting weirdos and criminals. Helen, the youngest, a successful novelist and screenwriter, constantly bemoans her wealth and status. And there’s Trish, an oblivious housewife married to a pedophile.

Life During Wartime picks up a decade after Happiness ends and the sister’s lives are, for the most part, in varying degrees of disarray. Joy leaves New Jersey for Florida to visit with her sister Trish, leaving behind her criminal, prank-caller husband Allen. Trish, not much better off, keeps her family of three kids, one away at school, together with a combination of prescription drugs and lies. A desperate attempt to erase her former life as the wife of a pedophile and rapist. The two kids, still living at home, Timmy and Chloe have been told their father is dead. Helen, even more successful now, secludes herself from the family in a resort-like mansion in California.

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There is no formal story, Wartime is instead a pastiche of conversations and moments from the sister’s lives. Solondz uses the characters to illustrate various metaphors about post 9-11 life in suburban America. Some of them are more skillfully delivered than others. My favorite is the rich, jaundiced yellow of the post-processing, mimicking the “threat level yellow” our country operates under since the attacks. On the other hand, Solondz uses the pedophile father as a symbol for terrorists and America’s irrational fear of all Muslims. Though the point is valid, it’s delivered with a heavy-hand. We don’t need to strain our intelligence to uncover the dual meaning. A more subtle inference would have suited the theme better. It’s almost as if Solondz was afraid the audience wouldn’t make the connection, so he left them no choice but to “get it.”

Life During Wartime is Solondz’s most accessible film since Welcome to the Dollhouse, but I’ll still to warn those with delicate sensibilities that there are still a handful of brutally uncomfortable moments, some involving children. The dialogue is masterful. Solondz has a knack for scripting conversations that are painfully honest and believable. It’s what makes his movies so devastating, they play like documentaries. We’re faced with the uncomfortable thought that people like this exist, right next door, most likely the same people we shared a conversation with on the sidelines of the soccer field.

tags: life during wartime, todd solondz

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