New Jersey native Todd Solondz again probes into American suburban life with the wryly unsettling, often original Life During Wartime. It may have trouble finding an audience besides those discerning arthouse cineastes.
This somewhat meandering, but acerbic and ingratiating independent film may be perceived as a sequel to his Happiness" over a decade ago (which featured thespians like Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, and Cynthia Stevenson). The characters have the same names as have appeared previously with an estimable ensemble including Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Ciaran Hinds.
The distinctive writer/director for some has a moribund sense of humor as there's a capricious transgressiveness permeating through the fears and anxieties with his actors realizing the earthy candor of being in his element.
An interesting perspective of moral relativism links three sisters - Joy (Henderson), Trish (Janney), and Helen (Sheedy). Trish's errant husband Bill (Hinds) is imprisoned and she seems to be on the road to settling down with a resonably fine, older Jewish man like Harvey (Michael Lerner) while real confiding with her younger son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder). On leave from her New Jersey correctional facility job, Joy is dismayed about her degenerate spouse in Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) and goes to Florida where Trish has misspoke about Bill's demise. From there, an unsatisfied Joy is off to California to catch up with Helen (Sheedy) who has become a Hollywood screenwriter.
Solondz's maturity in stewing over the project may not be evident to all, as much of the topics discussed focus on politics and desire of a sexual nature in each character's afflicted state. These experienced actors know how to amuse in an edgy, impassive way with consistent jabs among the characters.
What may be classified as "shock comedy" is ironically shot almost like one of those old afterschool specials as plenty of nerves are struck as the lives of the characters are able to branch out. Henderson comes off as a seraphic, haunted wallflower of individual, while a rangy Janney and Sheedy memorably deliver their line readings. A poignant ambiguity is felt as the main narrative development involves Bill and his reuniting with Timmy and eldest college-age son Billy (Chris Marquette). And, Hinds makes his part work in a truthfully understated way, especially in an unexpected intimate scene with a lonely woman (a still comely Charlotte Rampling).
A series of conversations holds together something more keenly observed upon further reflection which fills the void between innocence and exposed secrets. Its title is ripe for interpretation, moreso on a personal and familial level as it sensitively draws notably into the struggle of adolescent life. Even if the overrall thrust of the tale might be muted and open-ended its gloom with wild lighter moments still is transcendent with its notion of forgiveness in a new, starkly realistic era.
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