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Elegant opening credits, written as if calligraphy on a wedding invitation, yield to a couple in blunt close-up — unhappy, interracial, tearfully celebrating their anniversary in a shopping-mall restaurant. After an unfathomable exchange, he presents her with an antique bowl found on eBay and, after reciting a guffaw-worthy litany of sins, promises to turn over a new leaf. The waitress appears, recognizes the sinner, freaks out and spits in his tearful face. Violins herald the title: Life During Wartime.
Daring the discomfited viewer to laugh at shame and suffering and then wonder why we're laughing, Todd Solondz is back. Life During Wartime shows the misanthropic moralizer as confounding and trigger-happy as ever, his big clown thumb poised over a garish assortment of hot buttons: race, suicide, autism, sexual misery, self-hatred, Israel and, his old favorite, pedophilia.
Life During Wartime's opening echoes that of Solondz's relentlessly miserablist comedy Happiness (1998), to which the new movie is both sequel and remake. The three Jordan sisters — banal Trish, the self-satisfied mom; high-strung Helen, the bitchy career gal; and hapless Joy, the professional bleeding heart — are back, albeit played by an alternate trio of actresses (Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy and Shirley Henderson, respectively). Trish has relocated from suburban New Jersey to south Florida, where fragile little Joy arrives for a visit.
Newly separated from her husband, Joy is increasingly disassociated. Trish, however, is only a smidge chastened — even though Happiness ended, a decade or so before, with her model husband, Bill, en route to prison for drugging and raping several of his son Billy's fifth-grade classmates. Now Billy is in college, and Bill (having morphed from bland Dylan Baker to grim Ciarán Hinds) is about to be released just as younger son Timmy (Dylan Snyder), who's been told his father is dead, is preparing to become a man with a bar mitzvah speech full of quasi-religious masochistic imagery.
The movie's central character, Timmy is a familiar Solondz child: literal-minded, self-absorbed and very anxious — a version of the officious kid who self-righteously persecuted his family's Salvadoran housekeeper in Storytelling (2002), still the leanest and meanest articulation of the Solondz worldview. Adding to the oeuvre's sense of incestuous familiarity, Trish is contemplating a remarriage that would join her dysfunctional family with Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse clan, also arrived in the Sunshine State; her beau is Harvey Wiener (played by Michael Lerner as an affable troll).
Domestic melodrama is Solondz's meat. Assorted dreams and hallucinations, embarrassing parent-child interactions, and other forms of intimacy are presented with affectless objectivity. The mode is uninflected hysteria: In his highly deliberate compositions, not to mention his use of silent reaction shots and deadpan line readings, Solondz is a true descendant of R.W. Fassbinder. Family relations are never less than fraught, and sex is always scary.
Life During Wartime is full of apologies, sincere and otherwise, only one of which is even partially accepted. The existential situation of atonement made and unaccepted goes to the heart of Solondz's theology: The expression of remorse is crucial. As a onetime yeshiva student, the filmmaker was taught that while it is incumbent upon a pious Jew to atone, only the Creator of the Universe can truly forgive.
But here, the phrase "forgive and forget" is a meaningless contradiction. To forget a wrong is to nullify the act of forgiveness, and yet forgetting is ultimately the most absolute form of forgiving. Or, as the paradox-minded Franz Kafka put it, "The Messiah will arrive only when he is no longer needed."
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