Review: “Life During Wartime”

Todd Solondz’ “Life During Wartime," a kinda-sequel to his 1998 film "Happiness," is the most accomplished, complete and mature work of his career. Featuring a great ensemble cast, it will have you squirming and laughing, often doing both simultaneously.

"Wartime" reintroduces us to Joy, Trish and Helen, three sisters wallowing in varying flavors of despair. Through them, Solondz takes a look at a litany of society's ills, from pedophilia to theft to drug use – both illegal and prescription variety to lying and beyond. Burdened by all the sins plaguing their lives, the sisters and those around them constantly grapple with forgiveness, both giving it and seeking it.

Shirley Henderson takes over for Jane Adams as Joy, who tells her husband Allen (played magnificently by Michael K. Williams, best known as Omar from "The Wire") she needs some time off from their marriage. Part of the problem appears to be a long list of criminal and sexually deviant behaviors that Allen struggles with, one of which he can't fully let go of.

Allison Janney is her typically great self, this time as Trish, the over-medicated wife of a convicted pedophile who, in the interest of protecting her two younger children, tells them their father is dead. She is a case study in denial, numbing herself to the world and further insulating herself by adopting the attitude that "the past is the past." It's a sharp rebuke of the pill-popping, head-in-the-sand cowardice Americans have embraced as the use of prescription drugs has quadrupled over the past decade.

Finally there's Ally Sheedy as Helen, who as the most successful of the three is naturally the angriest. She is a whirlwind of resentment, sarcasm, self-pity and recriminations. She's the embodiment of the poor little girl, whose two biggest problems appear to be her sexual relationship with Keanu Reeves and her fabulous wealth. She is a monstrously self-absorbed hag.

The quest for forgiveness is around every corner in "Wartime," as each character wrestles with what they've done and what's been done to them. Solondz goes to the deepest and darkest corners of America in search of the line past which forgiveness is unreachable, and wonders what sort act might warrant forgetting, but not forgiving.

The toughest trick that Solondz asks of his cast is that they play out these scenes that are so arch and satirical, and play them straight, with all the pain such troubles would actually cause. It's a fine lien to walk, and if it's done poorly what you end up with is a story that neither funny nor sad. But Solondz' cast is so disciplined that they manage to keep the tone balanced.

Solondz is best known for his writing, but his camerawork in "Wartime" is not to be overlooked. His compositions are at times thoughtful and/or gorgeous, and he does a nice job of moving his characters through both time and space.  He's also paying much greater attention to color and set decoration -- he's really taken a much fuller approach to filmmaking that pays off dramatically.

"Life During Wartime" finds Solondz at the top of his game and features a brilliant cast deftly bringing to life the writer-director's raw tragicomic sensibility.

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