This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. “Life During Wartime” opens this Friday, July 23rd at the IFC Center in New York.
Despite the director's four year hiatus from making movies, Todd Solondz's gravely entertaining touch remains as intact as ever. "Life During Wartime," his sixth feature, maintains the droll satiric aura that permeates all of his work. It also involves his favorite narrative themes — pedophilia, suicide and other forms of emotional confusion are filtered through a typical Solondzian vision of suburban discontent. Less abstract than his last film, "Palindromes," — but nowhere near the brilliant morbid hilarity of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" or "Happiness" — it nevertheless confirms that his enjoyably twisted wit still has some life left in it.
Described by Solondz as a "quasi-sequel" to "Happiness," the new movie also revolves around the Jordan sisters (played by different actresses), a trio of women invariably steeped in dissatisfaction. Rather than attempting to tie them together, Solondz bounces around, creating a harmony of moods in lieu of one arc. It begins with Joy (Shirley Henderson), a wide-eyed young woman with a throaty voice unable to stabilize her relationship with husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams). Then, Solondz shifts to Trish (Alison Janney), as she struggles with the trauma of her incarcerated ex-husband's pedophilic history by eagerly seeking out a new mate. Ally Sheedy briefly shows up as Helen, the third and most successful (although apparently just as frustrated) of the siblings. The stories weave together but barely connect.
Set against a sunny Florida backdrop, the plot contains a stream of comically surreal flourishes. Joy sees ghostly visions of her dead lover (Paul Reubens) while wandering through a diner in the middle of the night. (The scene looks dreamy enough that it might actually be a dream, but we're never sure.) Trish dates a frumpy older man (Michael Lerner), with whom she has in awkward sex, leading to the discomfiting image of the disproportionally matched couple lying in bed together on full display, their faces less content than simply confused. Meanwhile, Trish's ex (Ciaran Hinds), gets out of jail and has a fleeting sexual encounter with an anonymous older woman (Charlotte Rampling), who encourages him to take money out of her wallet in exchange for the act. Bill's older son (Chris Marquette) delivers a lengthy monologue to his father about deciding to study homosexuality in the animal kingdom. Every one of these moments feels both symbolic and literal. The Solondz universe works in mysterious ways.
As a whole, "Life During Wartime" doesn't quite hold together. It's a better experience when viewed as a collage of well-executed fragments. The story suffers from "Happiness" comparisons and Solondz's typically alienating dialogue, which makes it difficult to access the core of his characters. But the performances glide over the rockier aspects of the script, particularly Henderson's spectacular blend of quiet wisdom and naivete. Such paradox provides the movie with an ironic core.
If "Life During Wartime" introduces anything new to Solondz's oeuvre, it develops from the religious component. Explicit Jewish references are peppered throughout the movie and invade the soundtrack. Trish's youngest son prepares for his bar mitzvah and assumes his nascent manhood allows him to start calling the shots around the house. Leave it to Solondz, with his salaciously charged sense of humor, to make an almost-thirteen-year-old into the sharpest character in this very adult movie.