15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Without a doubt, Todd Solondz's creepy, disturbing, and subversively hilarious masterpiece "Happiness" was my favorite film of 1998. Savage, but divisive, I've discovered through the years that the film tends to engender strong feelings of either hatred or of adoration with little middle ground. To be fair, with its mature themes and aggressive frankness, it may be one of the most squirm inducing comedies of all time. And yet this tale of three sisters and their immediate family also resonates with a certain amount of truth. The world is how we construct it but, often times, that construction is nothing more than an illusion. And those closest to us are either complicit in that deceit or are the only ones who can see through the cracks. A skewering of middle class ideals and insecurities, "Happiness" was a pitch perfect blend of the outrageous and the macabre.
When I heard that Solondz intended to revisit this masterpiece, casting new actors, it seemed like an inspired addition to his increasingly non-conformist resume. Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy now inhabit the roles originated by Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson, and Lara Flynn Boyle respectively. All three do an excellent job of recapturing the essence of their character's neuroses--Sheedy, unfortunately, has more of a cameo but her scenes are dead-on hilarious. The film begins with an absolutely perfect scene between Henderson and her husband that mirrors the first scene from "Happiness" in a sublimely funny way. When we move on to Janney, a control freak desperately looking for love, I knew that Solondz had done it again. The primary plot points involve Henderson dealing with a past lover's suicide (Jon Lovitz's ghost interpreted by Paul Reubens--inspired!), Janney's ex-husband (Ciaran Hinds) being released from prison, and Janney's son dealing with some pretty adult concepts.
However, as the film progresses, the very funny bits become overshadowed by bigger issues. Redemption and mortality end up being central themes--which I think is fantastic--but the blend between comedy and significance falls short of the delicately balanced "Happiness." The film loses a bit of its subversive edge and tone and by the end, I felt a little short-changed by the abrupt finale. I loved the actors--Janney and Henderson do most of the heavy lifting and are terrific. Young Dylan Riley Snyder, as Janney's son Timmy, carries much of the film and is an intriguing combination of creepy and sympathetic. I adored the first half of "Life During Wartime," but having a fresh viewing of "Happiness" under your belt will help you appreciate how great it really is. Ultimately, the second half wasn't as effective for me and I was left a little cold. About 3 1/2 stars overall, I'm rounding up for ambition. Go watch "Happiness!" KGHarris, 8/10.
New digital transfer, supervised and approved by director of photography Ed Lachman, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Ask Todd, an audio Q&A with director Todd Solondz in which he responds to viewers' questions
Making "Life During Wartime," a new documentary featuring interviews with actors Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, and Michael Kenneth Williams, and on-set footage of the actors and crew
New video piece in which Lachman discusses his work on the film
Original theatrical trailer
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Sterritt
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.