Criterion // 2009 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 8th, 2011
A film that finds the humor in the tragic and the tragic in the every day.
Bill: "So only losers ask for forgiveness?"
Jacqueline: "Only losers expect it."
Life During Wartime tells the story of three sisters coping with a series of challenges both new and old. Trish (Alison Janney, Juno) has seemingly recovered from her relationship with her pedophile ex-husband (Ciaran Hinds, Munich) and has moved on to a healthy new relationship with a kind-hearted older man (Michael Lerner, Barton Fink). Joy (Shirley Henderson, Meek's Cutoff) is attempting to come to terms with her husband's (Michael K. Williams, The Wire) phone sex addiction. Helen (Ally Sheedy, Short Circuit) now has a high-octane job in the entertainment industry and grows frustrated with the stresses that world has to offer. We follow these women as they travel to a series of unexpected (and often unhappy) destinations.
It could be argued that Todd Solondz's Happiness is the director's most satisfying, ambitious film. Since the release of that hotly-debated, generally well-regarded 1998 flick, Solondz has worked at a very slow pace, releasing Storytelling and Palindromes to mixed reaction. In an unusual move, Solondz makes a return to the realm of Happiness with the sort-of-sequel (or is it?) Life During Wartime, which casts new actors in old roles. Michael K. Williams fills in for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alison Janney takes over the role originated by Cynthia Stevenson, Ciaran Hinds replaces Dylan Baker's unnervingly sympathetic pedophile, and Paul Reubens steps into the Jon Lovitz role.
The stunt is interesting, and it's intriguing to see the manner in which these actors recapture the spirit of the original performance...or don't. The Michael K. Williams character still struggles with the same addictions he struggled with in Happiness, and Williams successfully recaptures much of what Hoffman brought to the role. On the flip side, the work Ciaran Hinds turns in couldn't be more different from what Dylan Baker delivered in Happiness -- the character is a much-changed man many years later. Solondz also performs variations on old scenes and brings some of his pet themes back to the table. It's an interesting experiment.
However, Life During Wartime only works on an experimental level. The film doesn't hold up very well on more basic terms, failing to provide sufficient reason for its existence aside from the fact that Solondz wanted to try something new with old characters. There are moments that suggest that Solondz is attempting to say something about the manner in which 9/11 has changed the world (and the perspectives of these characters), but that idea isn't explored very effectively (it mostly serves as a springboard for yet another intentionally awkward Solondz sequence in which a young boy demands to know whether pedophiles are also terrorists).
There are occasional moments of significantly involving human drama, such as the fantastic sequence in which Ciaran Hinds meets up with a bitter, no-nonsense woman played by Charlotte Rampling (Farewell, My Lovely) and engages in a bit of philosophical conversation. You can really feel the deep-rooted pain of both characters and the sequence concludes with a pitch-perfect sting. However, too frequently the characters seem to transform into cartoons, as Solondz proves capable of damaging even the most masterful performance with the dialogue he forces his actors to deliver. The great Alison Janney brings so much conviction to even the most ridiculous sequences (a preposterous bit of foreshadowing in which she tells her son to scream if he's ever touched by a man in any way made me shake my head in dismay), but in the end we think of her as a caricature rather than a person.
Quite a few directors (e.g. The Coen Brothers, Michael Haneke, and Lars von Trier) have been accused of treating their characters with spite, but more often than not I feel such complaints are misguided. However, Solondz's distinctively squirm-inducing brand of misanthropy becomes difficult to tolerate in Life During Wartime, as there isn't enough substance or humor to offset the fact that he doesn't allow these people to behave like real human beings frequently enough, while pushing them into increasing depths of relentless misery. Despite those fleeting moments that remind us of what Solondz is capable of, most of the film disappointingly veers between American Beauty-style smugness and low-rent nihilism. To borrow a phrase from The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak: "I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."
Those with greater admiration for the film than myself will be pleased to note that Criterion's Blu-ray release is exceptional. The 1080p/1.78:1 transfer boasts a bright Florida palette with colors that really pop. Detail is superb throughout, while blacks are rich and inky. This is yet another feature that demonstrates the considerable potential and diversity of the RED One Digital Camera. One is certainly given an appreciation for Solondz's gifts in terms of staging and set design, as his locations are distinctive and memorable (particularly a poolside locale we return to every now and then in repeated dream sequences). Audio is similarly excellent, offering a track that is noticeably immersive despite the fact that Life During Wartime features no action scenes and little in the way of aural wildness. Dialogue is perfect, the musical selections (another technical area in which Solondz excels) receive a rich mix and everything blends together beautifully.
Supplements are also quite strong, and actually more satisfying than the film itself. Things kick off with a 45-minute Q&A session with Solondz, in which the director responds to questions submitted by fans (the same approach Criterion took with Jim Jarmusch on Mystery Train). "Actors Reflections" is a 30-minute documentary featuring interviews with most of the key cast members (Janney, Williams, Hinds, Lerner, Henderson, Reubens, and Sheedy). You also get two separate video interviews with D.P. Ed Lachmann, plus about ten minutes of scene-specific audio commentary. Finally, there's a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by David Sterritt.
Todd Solondz is a polarizing filmmaker, and those unfamiliar with the director's work certainly shouldn't start with Life During Wartime. It's a frustrating work from a generally interesting director, and as such is only recommended for Solondz devotees. At least the Blu-ray release is top-notch.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scene Specific Commentary
* Audio Q&A