By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor
Don’t call Life During Wartime a sequel. Though it does feature the same characters as writer/director Todd Solondz’s Happiness, it is very much its own narrative. In fact, that’s what Life During Wartime is about,. In it, Solondz explores the possibility of forgiveness and what it takes to lead a new life.
The personal baggage with which Solondz’s sympathetic losers struggle is considerable. In Life During Wartime these psychological issues manifest themselves in the form of emotional scars, ghosts and willfully suppressed memories of the past. While Life During Wartime is Solondz’s most satisfying provocation to date — mostly because of its connection to established characters in Happiness, it’s unfair to think too much about how it relates to its predecessor. As strange as this may sound, knowing objectively what happened to these characters and why they act the way they do toward each other feels like cheating. So, viewers of this movie are encouraged to imitate Solondz’s characters and try to look at and accept Life During Wartime on its own terms.
Life During Wartime follows a family of three sisters — Trish (Allison Janney), Helen (Ally Sheedy) and Joy (Shirley Henderson) — as they struggle with their respective life crises. While we witness and come to understand their individual issues, Life During Wartime is primarily a movie about couples. The dialogue between any two given individuals is the driving force of the film. Here, Solondz pays special attention to the way that people both misunderstand each other and misrepresent themselves when speaking in private.
Take the film’s opening conversation between Joy (Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams). The stumbling way that Allen tries to prove his worth to Joy is only matched by the reluctant way Joy responds to him. Neither one knows what to talk about nor how to respond to what is important in the conversation. So they fixate on what’s irrelevant.
For example, before he tells Joy that he’s still calling strange women on the phone, Allen rattles off a list of criminal activities he’s managed to stop doing. Joy nods her head to each activity in his laundry list out of sheer obligation. She’s no longer convinced that she loves him anymore.
Allen: “No more cocaine.”
Joy: “Uh huh.”
Allen: “No more crack.”
Joy: “Uh huh.”
Allen: “No more crack cocaine.”
The illusion of accord in this scene totally devolves once a third party, in this case a waitress (Roslyn Buff), enters the conversation. The waitress recognizes Allen’s voice and then spits on him. She knows that Allen used to make lewd phone calls to women. She doesn’t know if he is still calling women but she does know he used to and that’s enough for her (“His voice is the same. Motherfucker.”). So she spits on him. The waitress’s self-righteous anger forces Joy, a painfully frail woman who works as a social worker counseling prisoners, to realize that with regard to her personal choices, she can’t be as forgiving as she’d like to be. It’s a blunt realization that she only achieves because a third party intervened, making this opening conversation the most explosive in Life During Wartime.
For this set of characters, miscommunication is all too common. It’s a painfully regular consequence of their interactions but still, it hurts to have to watch hearsay or even uninformed speculation affect Solondz’s pitiful characters. Joy’s mother Mona (Renée Taylor) knows as little about Joy’s relationship with Allen as does the waitress. But that doesn’t stop Mona from insisting that she knows exactly who Allen is. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” Mona shrewishly barks. “He’s a perv through and through. He was born a perv and he’ll die a perv.” It’s a ludicrous condemnation but one that will stick with Joy for the rest of the film (later, Joy paraphrases her mother when she condemns all men, in a conversation she has with her sister Trish; more on this later).
In fact, communication is so strained in this family that the simplest communication with or conjecture from a third party can cause all hell to breaks loose. For example, Trish’s (Allison Janney) son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) becomes traumatized when a classmate named Avi Fleischer informs him that his father Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is still alive. Timmy hates his mother for lying to him not because he wants to have a relationship with his father but because his friend told him that his father is a pedophile. According to Avi, that makes Bill a terrorist — of all things.
Timmy: “Avi Fleischer said that pedophiles are terrorists and they stick their penises into your… tushy.”
Trish: “Avi Fleischer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Fleischer puts this idea in Timmy’s head and because he doesn’t know what it means and Trish doesn’t know how to explain it, the issue at hand shifts from “Timmy’s father is still alive” to a histrionic fear of inheriting “faggot”-y traits.
Trish: “I lied to you because I love you, because I didn’t want any harm to come to you.”
Timmy: “But what if I become one though? I don’t wanna be a faggot. There’s this kid in my language arts class, and he is SO gay.”
Trish: “You won’t. It’s ok.”
In a way, Timmy and Trish both needed Fleischer’s ignorant comments to get them to address the fact that Bill is still alive.
Similarly, in the film’s final scene, Timmy needs Mark, the son of a man Trish is dating, (Rich Pecci) to help him turn his father into a ghost by sheer willpower alone. Mark, a recluse that’s weirdly obsessed with the idea that China will eventually take over the world, doesn’t say anything explicitly to Timmy about Bill. But he does tell him that he needs to, “forgive and forget,” as futile as that may be (“But it’s like freedom and democracy. In the end, China will take over and none of this will matter.”). We see Bill materialize out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly after Mark says this, as if Timmy conjured a vision of his father—just to make him disappear.
Once again, the intervention of an outside character that expedites the collapse of a relationship. The dissolution of Joy and Allen’s dysfunctional relationship is pointedly juxtaposed with Trish’s pathetic first date with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a divorcee that, unlike Joy, would rather forget than forgive his ex-wife. This endears him to Trish:
Harvey: “I can’t talk about my sex life.”
Trish: “I can’t either.”
Harvey: “There’s just so much I don’t understand.”
Trish: “Sometimes it’s better to not understand.”
No one intervenes here, which is why Trish deludes herself into thinking that she and Harvey could be happy together. She tells herself that Harvey is family-oriented and while he’s not handsome or well off in her eyes, he is pro-Israel, which for some reason matters a great deal to her.
Harvey and Trish connect because they both want to start afresh. This is an idea that initially appeals to Joy, too. Unfortunately for Joy, she wastes too much time listening to too many other people, all of whom try and fail to persuade her to leave Allen. Joy’s friends’ advice only winds up confusing her. She parrots her mother’s ungenerous edict about how all men are no good but can’t even finish repeating that obnoxious thought. This is an especially truthful scene. It’s a reflection of the myriad times that we embarrass ourselves by repeating a phrase, a fact or an idea that we picked up while talking to somebody else. Just by repeating it to a third party in a new context, we, like Joy, discover that that phrase simply doesn’t have the universality that we once thought it did.
Trish similarly repeats Harvey’s line about how she can’t afford to fail in her new relationship with him but who knows if that’s true or not or if it’s just something she’s thinking in that moment? Maybe there’s no difference. After all, later, after Harvey and Trish have sex, Trish no longer thinks being “family-oriented” is an important character trait. “Fuck family,” she spits out exhaustedly. “Fuck the kids. I just don’t care anymore.” The fact that she tells Harvey that she didn’t really meant what she said in the very next scene does not negate the fact that she appears sincere enough when she practically spits out, “Fuck family.” The same is true about her earlier conversation with Joy. She’s not insincere, just inconstant. “Love can really change a person,” she murmurs but we know better. People don’t change in Life During Wartime, just their circumstances, just their feelings.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut