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Life During Wartime shot from the hip and at the heart

Ciaran Hinds as Bill in Life During Wartime.

3 out of 4 stars


Life During Wartime

  • Written and directed by Todd Solondz
  • Starring Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds, Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens, Shirley Henderson and Charlotte Rampling
  • Classification: 14A

Todd Solondz isn't for everyone, maybe not even most people. The director of Happiness and Welcome to the Doll House has one major theme - incest as a metaphor for corrosive family life. Complicating matters, he's a comic filmmaker whose idea of entertainment is shredding chum into a shark tank.

Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to Solondz's 1998 film Happiness, an unflinching portrait of a pedophile named Bill (Dylan Baker). A decade or so later, Bill (now played by Ciaran Hinds) has been released from jail and is looking for his kids' forgiveness. To reach them, he'll have to keep out of his ex-wife's way. A bulldozer done up in flowery dresses, Trish (Allison Janney) has moved herself and the kids from New Jersey to Florida in search of a safer life with conservative, presumably more trustworthy, Jews.

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"He voted for Bush and McCain," Trish says of new boyfriend, Harvey (Michael Lerner). "But only because of Israel. He knows those people are idiots."

Trish is trying to do the right thing by her youngest, Timmy, but is scaring the daylights out of him. "If a man touches you, scream!" she tells her son. Alone with the boy, Harvey throws his arm around little Timmy - just trying to be a mensch. Predictably, the little guy goes off like a siren.

So long, Harvey. Love, like life, isn't easy during wartime.

Trish has free advice for everyone in her life. She keeps trying to talk sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) into abandoning her vocation - helping black ex-cons adapt to civilian life by marrying them. She also has a lot to say to a third sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy), a successful, miserable Hollywood screenwriter.

There are lots of uncomfortable laughs to be had in Solondz's cruel but tender domestic comedy. Joy is a wan do-gooder with a kick-me sign permanently affixed to her rear end. Her relationship with her husband, Allen (Michael K. Williams - Omar in The Wire), is a hopeless, violent tangle that culminates with Allen shouting, "Die for me and I'll know you love me."

A typically awkward-funny scene has Joy hiding from Allen in Los Angeles, trying to find sleep in Helen's trophy room with Emmys staring down at her everywhere, while her screenwriter sister pushes a Keanu type around in bed the next room over.

You might gather from all this that Solondz is conducting a fizzy farce. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mood of Life During Wartime is sombre. And the uniformly fine players, except for Charlotte Rampling, who shows up as a masochistic barfly, are unfailingly polite.

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The Florida and Los Angeles scenery is also quite pleasant, with beautiful flowers crowding every scene. We can presume this is another of Solondz's mordant jokes. He's throwing a party for his very strange family - a lilac-scented funeral. Die for me and I'll know you love me, indeed.

And yet for all of Solondz's mischief, we sense he likes his unhelpable characters, and that they maybe like each other. A little bit, anyway. When Bill finally shows up in his older boy's dorm at college, the kid is glad to see him. As they talk, we can't help but notice a poster on the wall behind them - two chimps copulating, with the tag line "Stop Monkeying Around."

But what can they do? They're monkeys. Solondz would seem to feel the same way about his all too fallible characters. What can they do? They're only human.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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