Reconsideration is on the minds of both the characters in Life During Wartime and their creator, writer-director Todd Solondz. The characters reconsider each other as they contemplate whether forgiveness is in order for various crimes of the heart, while Solondz is reconsidering the stuff of his own 1998 film Happiness, to which Life During Wartime is a sequel. Taking a cue from the casting pluralism of his 2004 film Palindromes, the returning characters from Happiness are all portrayed by different actors (at one point, a waitress absurdly asks a single patron, "How many are you?"). Unfortunately for Solondz, anyone who's written him off isn't likely to reconsider him on the basis of Life During Wartime, a typically horny-thorny Solondzian dramedy.
Solondz specializes in broken people, on whom he inflicts in-your-face emotional cruelties. Comedy doesn't get any blacker, but it's not so much the situations as the universal patheticness and/or unpleasantness of so many of the characters that can make the Solondz's films such bitter pills. Still emotionally damaged by the crimes of her boy-raping ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds), Trish (Allison Janney) has relocated to Florida, where she latches onto the apparent normalcy of blind-date Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner); Trish is positively giddy at the prospect of an alternative to her last blind-date-turned-husband, who turned out to be "sicko-pervy." Returning home to her twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish engages him in a wildly inappropriate conversation about her date and Harvey's ability to make her "wet" with a touch. Later, Trish will let fly with the post-coital announcement "Fuck family. Fuck motherhood. Fuck the kids. I just don't care anymore," and though she takes it back, she seems numbly unconcerned with her daughter being on Klonopin (perhaps because Trish is, herself, heavily medicated).
Trish's sisters aren't exactly pictures of mental and emotional stability: vituperative Hollywood writer Helen (Ally Sheedy) is as lacerating toward her family as she is self-loathing, and Joy (Shirley Henderson) has epically bad taste in men, having replaced the unpredictable Andy (Paul Reubens) with the sexually deviant addictive personality Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams); ghosts of ex-boyfriends past haunt her, with maximum nastiness, throughout the film. Meanwhile, pedophile Bill gets released from prison and has no idea what to do with himself; this leads him into the emotionally cold arms of an aging vamp (Charlotte Rampling) and then toward a rendezvous with his college-age son Billy, from whom Bill seeks forgiveness. Forgiveness is the bluntly stated theme of Life During Wartime. "People can't help it if they're monsters," Bill muses, but forgiving is no easy task for the hurt, and forgetting is pretty much out of the question. The fallout of Bill's crimes has awful consequences for Timmy—obsessed with protecting his last gasps of childhood as he confusedly explores "What It Means to Become a Man" (the title of his iminent bar mitzvah speech)—and any man who might try to reach out to him.
By forcing comically melodramatic phrasing on his actors, Solondz gets stylized performances from his cast that can be funny in an absurdist vein but also alienating to the viewer. Since his character is uniquely terse, Hinds escapes this phenomenon, and his work as a man who has crossed a line of no return is disturbingly, deeply felt. As is her wont, Janney gives a heroically committed, poignant performance that almost, but not quite, makes her character bearable. Whether or not forgiveness is possible is the thinnest thread on which the picture hangs, but Solondz pretty much snips it himself with the admittedly funny one-liner "In the end, China will take over and none of this will matter." Timmy's rejoinder lands with plainly stated feeling, even as Solondz delivers a coup de grâce to the boy's lone desire via a background visual. Solondz's is a universe of limitless disappointment. Does any of this matter? Does Solondz want forgiveness for his own misanthropy?
Say what you will about the look of Life During Wartime, but Criterion's Blu-ray release of the film presents it flawlessly. Shot with the RED One camera, Solondz's film has overcooked color that's as in-your-face as his narrative style. The cinematographer-approved transfer completely captures that palette in a totally stable, crisply detailed and textured image. Working from a digital-audio master, Criterion delivers a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that perfectly recreates the theatrical audio. The mix doesn't have a ton of rear-channel activity, but dialogue is always crystal clear.
In the Criterion-exclusive audio piece "Ask Todd" (44:46, HD), director Todd Solondz answers twenty-six fan-submitted questions about Life During Wartime and his filmmaking.
"Actor's Reflections" (29:54, HD) cuts together Criterion-exclusive 2011 video interviews with actors Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, and Ally Sheedy.
Three Criterion-exclusive pieces with director of photography Ed Lachman include "On Life During Wartime" (10:52, HD), "Selected-scene Commentary" (9:51, HD) on six scenes), and "Five Questions" (7:11, HD).
Last up is the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:08, HD). Enclosed with the disc is a 16-page booklet with film credits, tech specs, color art, and critic David Sterritt's essay "Wars on Terror."
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