Kids say the most appalling things (adults too) in Solondz’s wicked ‘Wartime’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor [email protected]

4.5 out of 5 stars

Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Ciaran Hinds. Rated R. 100 mins. Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.


The creepy wonderfulness that is Todd Solondz’s aesthetic is how ordinary things are made weird and disturbing things normal. So, when a little boy answers a phone with “Hello, who is this?” sounding more suspicious than curious, you have to weigh it against a prickly spinster cooing to her boyfriend … who happens to be an admitted sex pervert.

So opens Life During Wartime, Solondz’s peculiar sequel to his masterpiece Happiness, undeniably the best film of 1998. No one finds the horror and comedy of middle class dislocation with more sting than he does. Not even David Lynch. There, I said it.

Wartime — which, along with Winter’s Bone, is one of the two best American films released this year — follows the same characters, all played by different actors, as Happiness. At the center are three sisters: wispy Joy (Shirley Henderson); artsy Helen (Ally Sheedy) and Trish (Allison Janney), whose pedophile husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has just been released from prison.

THE PURSUIT OF ‘HAPPINESS’ | Allison Janney, top, and Paul Reubens, right, appear with a crackerjack ensemble in this disturbing sequel.

Solondz, armed with a crackerjack ensemble, is brilliant at portraying cruelty with appalling ease. A woman asks a man at a bar, “You’re not a faggot, are you?” without a hint of discomfort. (A small boy also tells his mom he hopes he doesn’t grow up to be a faggot; she promises him he won’t.)
This is not feel-good entertainment.

But it is great entertainment, and funny as hell — though wickedly so.

There’s a bare minimum of plot: While an unseen war rages, the characters are lost in their own problems. Trish meets a new man; Joy struggles to find a man she can love while haunted by the memory of a past lover (Paul Reubens, who’s just terrific in a few scenes).

As with Solondz’s breakout cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse, Life During Wartime (which originally had the more appropriate title Forgiveness) is equally deft at awkward silences and overstuffed dialogue about matters both inconsequential and horrific. There’s a confrontation between Bill and the son he abused, immediately following another son wondering how deep forgiveness goes. Then Joy will leave a forgiving voicemail for a man who just killed himself because of her disapproval.

The visual style mirrors the aural: A hodgepodge of stark, static images, languorous tracking shots and disorienting jump-cuts.

It veers dangerously close to camp, but never goes, full-throated, for gimmickry. Irony has never been cleverer, or more unsettling.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.