The film has flaws, but also unique features that could easily be lost in a dismissive review; it is past the range of what people would normally expect to see, and even outside what I had come to expect from Todd Solondz, although a background knowledge of Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes is helpful to fully understanding what’s going on. It plays as a sequel to Happiness in particular, but while Happiness delivered material in complete contradiction to its title with a straight-faced demeanor that approached satire, I began to think of Life During Wartime as a more sympathetic, deeper look at the same surface of characters holding it together or breaking under the “never-ending struggle” of their problems—and suddenly, its title made more sense.
These are essentially one-note roles—characters who occasionally manage to vary in tone before snapping back to who they always were. But other than Timmy (a red-haired, freckled, literal poster-child for vulnerability waiting to be hurt), they resist being summed up in casual terms; Joy (Shirley Henderson), for example, is sure that a trial separation from her husband is the right thing to do, but is haunted by literal encounters with ghosts from her past. The rest also tend to idealize moving toFloridaand forgetting everything which has come before, but continues to shape them.
One of Joy’s encounters takes place in a diner with Paul Reubens as Andy, a previous boyfriend who has committed suicide—you might first think the offbeat interlude is Solondz being self-indulgent, but it stems directly from the guilt Joy is experiencing; in this way, Life During Wartime is more or less indulgent to its characters first, painting gentle portraits of their slow crumbles and self-delusions with a sustained interest most films would eventually drop in favor of a larger plot thread. But other than the setting of America circa 2009, which provides a context that gives its ponderings on the subject of forgiveness more relevance, it’s all exploration from start to finish; this is a film dictating from a therapist’s couch.
Several scenes veer into extravagant territory by taking the most awkward or intense way they could play out (of course), but they don’t drop into melodrama or exaggerated miscommunications—indeed, the best part of the film may be the special tone it occupies, lining up characters like a pedophile and a shallow Hollywood screenwriter, but only doing the most solidly dramatic things that could reasonably happen with them.
A word has to be said about its technical flaws. When recorded dialogue contains static, humming or other interference, there are computer tools that can remove the unwanted noise, with the effect making the treated dialogue sound thin and robotic at the edges; I point this out because this film is the only occasion I have ever heard the signature of that problem outside of student films. At other points, also, the color saturation is taken to such extreme levels of yellow and green that in some cases the actors, rimmed with green fringe, seem to have been shot in front of a chroma key—it’s rather bizarre to see these kinds of hang-ups in a film with a listed budget of 4.5 million.
The invitation-card elegance of its title cards seems like a “Happiness”-esque wink to the viewer, promising a send-up of their stiffness, but there’s more to its treatment of the material than that. It’s one of those films you might call personal, to the point that other people might have a hard time understanding just what the director is going on about.
Life During Wartime at IMDb
Life During Wartime at Wikipedia
Life During Wartime at Rotten Tomatoes
Life During Wartime (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb