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Fresh performances and old wounds
on August 10, 2011
Todd Solondz' "Happiness" is one of the most disturbing films I'd ever seen. It's also excellent. It explores the ickiest, most pathetic and repulsive parts of modern human life, and deftly combines tragedy with pitch-black humor. Over a decade later, Solondz clearly felt the need to revisit the characters from that film, hence this sequel "Life During Wartime". Instead of trying to recruit the original actors to reprise their roles, Solondz chose to completely recast them, allowing a new cast to breath life into these characters.
As much as I wanted to love this film, throughout it I couldn't shake the feeling of it being a somewhat unnecessary sequel. The plot of "Happiness" loosely revolved around the stories of three sisters, and despite the years that have gone by, the characters haven't really changed much. Joy is still wimpy, optimistic, and drawn to self-destructive, damaged men. Helen is still arrogant and entitled. The only character who seems at least somewhat different is Trish. In the first film, before discovering her husband's pedophilia, she was a smug control freak. Years later, the character reeks of desperation while trying to recreate the "normal" life for herself that she thought she once had.
The themes of "Life During Wartime" are also mostly the same as those of "Happiness": trauma, shame, guilt, disappointment, and the part family plays in all of these things. The new film differs only slightly from its predecessor by also exploring the theme (or maybe just the possibility) of redemption. This exploration is apparent in the storyline of Bill Maplewood, Trish's ex-husband, just released from prison. Free, yet dazed and aimless, he wanders through the film like a ghost, having a strange dalliance with a nihilistic woman he meets at a bar (played by the always compelling Charlotte Rampling) and tracking his son down at College. Joy's character also seems to be looking for redemption; despite the fact that, unlike Bill, her guilt is completely unjustified, and she bears no real responsibility for those she feels she failed (two self-destructive, and ultimately suicidal, boyfriends).
Mostly, what saves the film from redundancy are the performers, and some of the casting choices are truly inspired. Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, and Ally Sheedy all do well inhabiting, and breathing some fresh life into, the characters originally played by Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson, and Lara Flynn Boyle. And some of the choices made for the supporting cast are phenomenal ... one example being Paul Reuben's ghostly re-interpretation of the character originally played by Jon Lovitz.
Overall, I think Todd Solondz would have been better off exploring some new characters. But by bringing a fresh cast to the table, and at least trying to expand their horizons thematically, "Life During Wartime" manages to come across more as an interesting experiment by a talented director than a redundant rehash.