Underneath the surface, Happiness was a thoughtful and compelling comedy. It was simply difficult for many people to see this, as most of the characters were somewhat unsavory, their characteristics downright appalling. Regardless of how interesting and well-portrayed a pedophile is in a comedy, the effect is more shocking than anything else. But filmmaker Todd Solondz has always portrayed the people who live on the outskirts of societal norms, and he does not do it with a cruel touch, but simply an honest and direct approach. In the follow-up to Happiness, Life During Wartime has no new shocking revelations, just the same characters returning for a lot of introspection.
In an interesting twist, Solondz has cast all-new actors to play the roles. To what purpose this serves, I’m not entirely certain, but it seems to work just fine. To a certain extent, it helps to rediscover these characters in a new way. The film is essentially just filled with honest and open conversations, dealing mostly with issues of forgiveness and redemption. The film opens with one of these conversations in a restaurant, and comes to a shocking close which makes much more sense having seen Happiness. And it also has a wonderful way of introducing the new actors, as they have a conversation about change. Their looks may have drastically changed from the past film, but there are some things that don’t change with some of these characters.
The three sisters are at the center of the film, though there are many additional characters. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is not living up to her name, so she leaves her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams). She visits each of her sisters, including Trish (Allison Janney), who has begun dating again and tries desperately to forget her pedophile husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds). Trish has also been lying to her youngest children about her former husband, unaware that he has recently been released from prison. Bill creeps around in the film, only in one scene does he actually have a conversation with another central character, and understanding this conversation means reading between the lines.
Joy’s other sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy), tries desperately to defend herself, making it even clearer that she is aware of how much she has sold her ideals for a comfortable existence. She seems always on the defensive, despite Joy’s delicate compliments and obvious admiration. Joy is struggling with more than she ever lets on, even seeing the ghost of another past lover, Andy (Paul Reubens). If Happiness was shocking because of the actions of the characters, Life During Wartime brings us a thoughtful and even touching follow up in which we can watch the same characters come to terms with their own actions.