In retrospect, Todd Solondz probably should have hung it up after Happiness. Twelve years later, that magnum opus of misery—in which damaged, dangerous New Jersey residents hurt each other as they seek to steal a bit of pleasure from a world reluctant to give it up—looks like the writer-director’s last word on any subject. Storytelling and Palindromes offered formal variations on the same themes—the first awkwardly, the second eloquently—but Happiness’ sharp, dark wit and ability to shape recognizably human characters drifted a little further away with each. With Happiness, Solondz made a bleak, funny, difficult-to-dismiss depiction of life as a never-ending struggle between vanity and the void. His work has felt like epilogues ever since.
At least Life During Wartime plays like an epilogue by design. This sequel to Happiness catches up with most of that film’s characters some years later and finds them fundamentally the same, doomed to repeat the mistakes they made before, but superficially changed. How changed? The central trio of sisters played by Lara Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, and Cynthia Stevenson has transformed, respectively, into Ally Sheedy, Shirley Henderson, and Allison Janney. Dylan Baker’s mild-mannered pedophile has become the hulking Ciarán Hinds. The miserable obscene-phone-caller originated by Philip Seymour Hoffman is played here by Michael K. Williams from The Wire. And so on. The action has shifted too, most of it unfolding in Florida, where Janney has fled to escape the shadow of her pedophile husband’s disgrace; she’s even told her younger two children that their father died. As her middle son prepares for his bar mitzvah, Janney finds romance with an older man (Michael Lerner) and plays host to her haunted, tenderhearted sister (Henderson), who’s visiting from New Jersey while in the midst of relationship problems.
Solondz remains a master of awkward interactions and of creating conversations that veer off in uncomfortable directions with every word past “hello.” Here, he’s assembled a cast able to capture discomfort well, but it’s seldom felt so much like discomfort for its own sake. Life During Wartime circles around the theme of forgiveness, revives Solondz’s notion of childhood as a state of awful grace, and keeps returning to the role various characters’ Jewish identity plays in their lives. But the film remains curiously distant at each moment, and the distance feels less like a stylistic choice than an absence of anything to say. Happiness was, in its own dry, muted way, a howl of fatalistic despair discernible to anyone who’s ever felt life had run out of cruel tricks to play. Life During Wartime is less a reprise of that howl than its echo.