The press notes for Life During Wartime describe it as a “part sequel/part variation” to writer-director Todd Solondz’s Happiness, his 1998 magnum opus about pedophilia, phone sex, murder and other variations of suburban misbehavior. But the new movie is, in fact, a full-on sequel – it’ll probably border on the incomprehensible if you haven’t seen the original – and utterly superfluous.
Transplanting the setting from New Jersey to Miami (the film was shot largely in Puerto Rico), Life During Wartime catches up with the complex lives of Happiness‘ three sisters – played, like the rest of the returning characters, by new actors. The repressed Joy (Shirley Henderson, a weak substitute for Jane Adams) is now married to Allen (The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams) but still has the unusual ability to cause people to burst into tears wherever she goes.
Trish (Allison Janney) has moved on from her marriage to Bill (Ciaran Hinds), who is about to be released from prison after serving time for raping and sexually molesting minors. Trish has a new boyfriend, the divorced and lonely Harvey (Michael Lerner), who isn’t quite her type but who, she hopes, will serve as a father figure for her younger son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder).
And the successful novelist Helen (Ally Sheedy), who has graduated to writing screenplays, is still as mopey and morose as ever. Aside from the distraction of having different actors as characters made indelible by their original portrayers, Life During Wartime suffers from a fatal lack of purpose. Solondz seems to have dusted off his creations and brought them back simply because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. The movie covers much of the same territory as the first film (including the queasy, squirm-inducing scenario of much-too-young children having conversations about sex with adults), but the shock value has worn off, along with the pathos and humaneness Solondz managed to generate for his often-irredeemable Happiness protagonists.
The large ensemble cast is erratic – Paul ‘Reubens is miscast as the ghost of one of Joy’s former lovers, although Charlotte Rampling is enjoyably strange as an over-the-hill good-time girl – but the actors’ efforts are ultimately irrelevant. Life During Wartime, which feels like a movie made to fulfill a contractual obligation, says nothing new, nothing that Happiness didn’t already say, only better.
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney, Emma Hinz, Michael Lerner, Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens, Dylan Riley Snyder, Michael Kenneth Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Chris Marquette.
Writer-director: Todd Solondz.
Producers: Christine Kunewa Walker, Derrick Tseng.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. Opens Friday, Sept. 10 at the Cosford Cinema.