Life During Wartime

Forgive or forget, wonder the damaged souls in Todd Solondz’s semi-sequel to 1998’s Happiness. Either way, Happiness loaded them with more baggage than they can handle. Between the suicides, stalking and child molestation, it’s a wonder any of the characters are ready for another round. And in some ways, they aren’t. Solondz has swapped out his original cast for new actors—when Michael Bay does it that move makes headlines, but Solondz is the director who once cast 10 actors to play a pregnant 12-year-old girl. Happiness upended lives; its sequel finds everyone still floundering to cope. Feathery Joy (Shirley Henderson, a waif channeling doomed silent film heroines) has gotten married to Allen the obscene phone caller (Michael K. Williams) and is still plagued by inexplicable tears and the ghost of her dead ex-boyfriend (Paul Reubens) who blames her for his suicide. It’s a trick of family fate that she’s from the same DNA as sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a brash, rich screenwriter who insists she’s the victim. By contrast, middle sister Trish (Allison Janney), who had the worst luck when her husband (Ciaran Hinds) was locked up for rape and pedophilia, is set on reclaiming normal. She’s got three kids, the suburban ranch house and a new fiancé named Harvey (Michael Lerner) whom she loves for being solid, boring and Zionist. Trish tells her two youngest that daddy died. It’s the only lie in the film—Solondz uses honesty like a knife. Once he’s set up their struggles, the characters go at each other like assassins, “forgiving” each other in speeches that sound like accusations and destroying the fragile Joy to prop themselves up on her bones. And their efforts to forget the past have them popping pills, smoking pot and cutting off their family—or, like Trish, rewriting history. Solondz sees life as misery and actors as instruments. In his hands, they’re pianissimo, vibrato, fortissimo—and never in harmony. Few directors have his ear for the cringing pause, and when he has weeping 12-year-old Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) blurt, “Fuck you, bitch!” the musical bluster and frailty in his line could have come from Chopin. Around them, doomsayers talk about war and the coming Chinese catastrophe, but these problems loom like a hawk’s shadow over a mouse that’s minutes from starving to death. There’s war and then there’s emotional warfare, and if one of them doesn’t kill you, the other surely will.

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