In Todd Solondz’s last film, 2005’s Palindromes, the writer-director used eight actors to portray the same character. He employs a similar gimmick in Life During Wartime, the 2009 sequel to 1998’s squirmingly excellent Happiness—by using an entirely different cast. But what was novel in Palindromes quickly wears here, and the result is an irritating distraction instead of a worthy follow-up.
The first scene, which re-creates the setting of Happiness’ opening, clues you in to what’s going on. Sort of. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is having an awkwardly silent and gloomy dinner date. When her companion (Michael Kenneth Williams) tells Joy that she seems sad, she answers, “Oh, no, just a little…déjà vu” (har har). Then, like in Happiness, he gives her an inscribed ashtray. So is this the same guy Joy broke up with in the first film? Nope, it’s Allen, the phone stalker previously played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And they’re married.
Joy and Allen do not break up but talk about his issues, which go beyond reaching out and pretending to touch someone. The conversation is darkly funny. (“No more crack, no more cocaine, no more crack cocaine…” he says, offering a list of vices that goes on and on.) But even if Happiness is still fresh in your mind, it’s too much of a struggle to grasp what’s going on to appreciate the humor.
Joy’s sisters are more recognizable: Trish (Allison Janney), the former I-have-it-all! wife of a pedophile, is now in love with an older man (Michael Lerner) and living in Florida with her tween son and grade-school daughter, while Helen (Ally Sheedy) has cut ties with her family and retired from poetry to write screenplays. Sheedy and Janney prove terrific mimics of Happiness’ Lara Flynn Boyle and Cynthia Stevenson, which makes it a shame that their characters are so cartoonish. (Trish, blissed out, tells her son that she “got wet” during a date; Helen randomly over-reacts to a question about dating Keanu Reeves with, “I mean, we’re still a country at war!”)
Helen, at least, is corralled to a single scene, with the bulk of the story devoted to Joy. Henderson is babyish as Joy, her character infuriatingly passive and unsympathetic, unlike Jane Adams’ original and more likable loser. These new iterations are the film’s worst sin: Whereas Happiness also showed deeply flawed human beings, they had some humanity, and you pitied them. These characters arouse only ire as they say and do things that no relatable person would say or do. Joy talks to the ghost of her ex (Paul Reubens), who commits suicide and generally walks around dumpy-looking and dazed—and then another guy kills himself over her. (Really?) Trish’s former husband, now played by a too-manly and too-dignified Ciarán Hinds, is released from jail and visits their college-age son, Billy (Chris Marquette), where he doesn’t really try to make amends for molesting Billy’s friends but asks him if he has rape fantasies.
It’s as uncomfortable as it sounds, with no big-picture payoff. When Trish, in a rare instance of melancholy, says, “Fuck family. Fuck motherhood. Fuck the kids. I just don’t care anymore,” it comes across as a refreshing moment of Earthling-esque honesty. But then she says she doesn’t mean it, and the mask goes back on—not that the sentiment redeemed the rest of the film anyway. There’s also a lot of talk about forgiving and forgetting as well as terrorism, freedom, and democracy, with most of the topics tied—naturally!—to pedophilia. As a whole the film feels rambling, with the director seemingly grasping for significance while hating his creations. There’s only one possible outcome to such disjointed contempt: You’ll hate it all, too.