Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Ciarán Hinds, Paul Reubens, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, Chris Marquette, Michael Kenneth Williams, Roslyn Ruff, Dylan Riley Snyder, Renée Taylor, Rebecca Chiles, Emma Hinz, Rich Pecci, Gaby Hoffmann, Carmen Marie Colon Mejia, Fernando Samalot, Meng Ai
Written by: Todd Solondz
Directed by: Todd Solondz
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 98
Date: 09/03/2009

Life During Wartime (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

More Happiness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Goodness only knows what Todd Solondz went through six years ago when his controversial Palindromes opened to mostly negative reviews and tepid box office. Was he able to shrug it off, or has he spent the time struggling through a dark place? Either way, he seems to have emerged refreshed; his new film Life During Wartime strikes the right balance between funny, disturbing and truthful. Its structure and balance bring it up to a par with Happiness (1998).

Indeed, the characters and situations from that film have directly inspired this new film; most of the characters have the same names and spring from the same material, even if none of the actors is the same. The press materials call it a "part sequel, part variation."

The film opens on a collection of seemingly disconnected characters; as the film goes on, we slowly discover how they all fit together. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is sitting down to a special anniversary dinner with her husband, Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams). She's a social worker who helps reform convicts, and he is one such convict, with a scar running along one side of his face. He tearfully confesses that he's done with the violence, and drugs and crime, although he can't quite seem to stop the dirty phone calls.

Then we take a jaunt over to Florida to meet Trish (Allison Janney), who is on a date with Harvey (Michael Lerner). They really make a connection and share a passionate kiss. Happy Trish returns home to her young son and daughter, and she has a third, older son, who is away at college. We learn that Harvey is a divorcee. Trish's kids believe that their father is dead, but really he's in jail for pedophilia.

Unfortunately, the father, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) has just been released and makes his way home. He breaks into his old house to have a look around, has a fling with a woman in a bar (Charlotte Rampling), and contacts the older son, Billy (Chris Marquette).

Meanwhile, Joy leaves her husband, visits her mom (Renée Taylor), meets her sister Trish for lunch, then re-connects with another sister, a successful but neurotic Hollywood writer, Helen (Ally Sheedy). She also receives visits from an old, dead boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide years earlier.

Solondz focuses mostly on conversations here, but careful to establish a vivid and off-kilter setting for each one. Joy wanders into a totally empty restaurant and waits for the hostess to hunt through the computer before she's led to a table. In this weird, quiet place, Joy has her first meeting with the ghost of Andy. A later conversation takes places in Helen's house, with a row of Emmy awards shelved over the bed. (Joy grabs one at one point to use as a weapon.)

Most of the film takes place in Florida, with little jaunts to Los Angeles and New York, and Solondz uses the sunshine almost as a drug that brings happiness to people that aren't really happy. The silent, solitary scenes with Bill, walking alone and fresh out of jail, perfectly illustrate this. He wears his dark suit and his long face almost as if the sunlight couldn't quite reach him.

But it's the conversation that makes this film; the dialogue is vicious and pointed, but hilarious; it's ridiculous but truthful. Trish tries to convince Joy to move to Florida by insisting that food, jobs and shopping are about the same; the line gets a laugh, but it's also frightfully true. (The actors, especially Sheedy and Janney, really get great mileage out of this stuff; they're terrific.)

The theme of the last film was non-communication. Here the communication is more direct; characters are now ready to talk frankly with one another. Some things turn out pretty well, but sadly, other things still get messed up. At least Solondz knows how to laugh it off.

The Criterion Collection released a beautiful DVD and Blu-Ray in the summer of 2011, demonstrating how great subtle cinematography can look. Extras include a recording of Solondz answering e-mail questions from viewers, interviews with the cast, and an interview with cinematographer Ed Lachman (who also supervised the transfer). There's also a trailer and a liner notes essay by critic David Sterritt.

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