Look at us. Billions of years of evolution, and this is it? This mess? The unstable muck that spawned us should be ashamed. We are a nasty and sad species, a teeming accident of intractable desires and suspect intentions; our far-flung descendants will only remember those of us who practiced malevolence on a grand scale. Life is hell, and far too fleeting to boot. We are fucked, so let's just fuck until we collapse into a bloody heap. Right? Who's with me? No? You sure? Oh, OK. Sorry about that. Didn't mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I just spent 90 brutally long minutes in Todd Solondz's warped world, and like an astronaut readjusting to Earth's gravity after a torturous trip to some cruel, cannibalistic planet, I'm still a little bit wobbly and a mite distressed.
I'd visited this tragically bereft world before, in 1998, when it was called Happiness. The characters there haven't changed, but the people playing them have. Gone: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan Baker and Cynthia Stevenson. In their places, respectively: Michael Kenneth Williams, Shirley Henderson, Ally Sheedy, Ciarán Hinds and Allison Janney. Yes, The Wire's Omar is subbing for Hoffman's schlubby, mouth-breathing pervert. This should give you some idea of the uncanny discomfiture Solondz is shooting for with Life During Wartime, which finds the damaged Jordan clan and their various victims, enablers and tormentors as lonely, confused and occluded as they were 12 years ago. The war in the Middle East (our war in the Middle East), to which characters refer throughout, as if they can only understand their pain by measuring it against global catastrophe, looms as a sort of promise not that things could be worse, but that they will be soon.
Solondz's casting switcheroo, which recalls the destabilizing multiple-actress strategy he employed in Palindromes, quietly announces the film's thesis: We grow up, grow old, change, and become unfamiliar to our loved ones and ourselves, yet we continue to carry a seemingly timeless and inescapable culpability that cannot be sloughed off. We're not necessarily stained at birth—a vengeful God would be redundant—but we're basically screwed once we start wanting things from each other. What the folks from Happiness want now are answers: How did this happen? How did I get here? Why did you hurt me? Did I hurt you?
Claustrophobic and dour as Bergman's chamber films and as searingly bleak as anything Michael Haneke's done in the last 10 years, Life During Wartime unfolds as a series of clenched dialogues rehashing the traumatic episodes from Happiness, namely Bill Maplewood's child rape and Joy Jordan's shunned lover's suicide. The fraught reunions sometimes play out like rough sketches left over from the superior first installment, and it seems, early on, that Solondz is sheepishly attempting to pass off an odds-and-sods collection as a fully formed work that can stand on its own. That tinge of self-repetition persists through the end, but Solondz riffs on the old plangent chords in startling new ways, eventually reaching beyond Happiness—not in overall quality, perhaps, but the final 30 minutes of this unflinching work scream with a deeply empathic and soulful power that has heretofore been absent from Solondz's work. Much of that heft derives from Hinds' crushing presence as Bill, a man who has ruined everything and has no way of fixing it. Happiness ended with sick humor, but Life During Wartime concludes with real sadness, and I'm with Solondz: I'd rather cry than laugh at this point in time.
is not rated. It opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.