During the first five minutes of Todd Solondz's Happiness, Jon Lovitz's character Andy hurls a minute-long verbal assault at his ex-girlfriend Joy (played by Jane Adams). "I'm champagne, and you're shit!" are but a few of his parting words before the film's title card pops up against a black background. In his new film, Life During Wartime, Solondz revisits the ground that defined him as a filmmaker with an ardent desire to explore the gloomy and the polemic. Operating as an epilogue to Happiness, Solondz goes back to his favorite well of such squirm-inducing topics as pedophilia, perversity, and parental damage.
In this new film, the characters are represented by a new set of actors. Joy is played with squeaky aplomb by Shirley Henderson, while Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens' portrayal of Andy is, in a good way, wince-inducing. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's obsessive pervert, Allen, still has a knack for sexual harassment, but this time the character comes in the shape of Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire). Dylan Baker's affable pedophile, Bill Maplewood, is portrayed by the menacing Ciaran Hinds. This go around, Hinds' performance complements Allison Janney's version of the unstable Trish, Bill's now ex-wife (once played by Cynthia Stevenson).
The film opens with the familiar scenario established in Happiness. Joy is breaking up with her blubbering male companion in a nice restaurant; awkwardness naturally ensues. This time Joy's companion is Allen. While crying rivers of tears, Allen details the temptations that he constantly faces: "No cocaine. No more crack. No more crack-cocaine." It isn't long before the happy party is made happier when the waitress, one of Allen's previous phone victims, launches a loogie at his face. Opening the film with a scene that recalls one of the previous film's most awkwardly memorable moments lets the viewer know right away that there won't be much deviation from the original work.
At another restaurant table, Trish is falling heart-over-mind for failing businessman Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), a refugee from another Solondz film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Further cementing Trish's inept judgment, she floats home to tell her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), "I'm in love. He's totally different from your father. He just touched my elbow, and I got wet. I felt like a tulip opening up her petals."
As she returns from her high, Trish realizes her faux pas, but not before telling her inquisitive son that she dried herself off with a paper towel. Meanwhile, Bill, who Trish has declared dead, has just left his stint in the big house and makes a vain attempt to call the kids that don't know he exists, later having an excursion with a hateful bar wench.
Joy seeks poor advice from her more successful sisters Trish and Helen, an author currently boinking a guy named Keanu. Needless to say, Trish offers vapid advice while Helen (with Ally Sheedy replacing Lara Flynn Boyle) can only make insults in the guise of help.
Every bad decision follows another bad decision that further drives home the film's central theme of humanity's inability to change. Joy leaves her men withered and weak, and Trish over medicates herself and her kids on various pharmaceuticals, while Helen is still able to make her life's problems more important than anyone else's personal tragedies.
Walking into this film without a prior viewing of Happiness won't hinder the experience. Casual and new audiences may find the uncomfortable subjects a bit much. And it may be hard to ask indie heads and Solondz's diehard fans to come back to the previous characters' exploits in the 1998 film with a pool of new actors in a world where ADHD has become the main hindrance of cinema.
But Solondz's pitch-perfect writing coupled with some great acting make it manageable. Unfortunately, the film as a whole seems a bit pedestrian. With Solondz's other work, there has always been an innate ability to create gray characters in a black-and-white world. Solondz has no problem giving us a multifaceted take on the familial structure, but does the bleak side always have to be that bleak? Sometimes it seems like Solondz's biggest challenge would be to make a film that doesn't dismay, disgust, or depress. Like Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, and Werner Herzog, Solondz's films reward the audience with a new viewpoint that most directors shy away from.
But this time around, there is no reward.