out of Five
Running time: 96
Superbly acted, sharply written and darkly funny in places, this is a clever reworking of Happiness that's part sequel and part something else entirely, though it's often painfully slow and the plot doesn't stand up too well on its own.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Todd Solondz, Life During Wartime is a companion piece to his 1998 hit Happiness. Part sequel, part revamp (all the roles have been recast) and part something else altogether, the film follows Joy Jordan (Shirley Henderson) as she heads to Florida to visit her sister Trish (Allison Janney) after discovering that her husband Allen (The Wire's Michael K. Williams in the part played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is still making obscene phone calls.
However, Trish has her own problems – she's told everyone, including her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) and her new boyfriend Harvey (Michael Lerner) that her husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is dead, but he's actually been in prison for abusing a young boy and, unbeknownst to her, is about to be released. Meanwhile, Joy heads to LA to visit her other sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), who's now a Hollywood screenwriter, and Bill gets out of prison and attempts to visit his older son Billy (Chris Marquette) after learning that he's at university.
The performances are excellent, particularly the ever-wonderful Allison Janney, while Hinds is quietly excellent as the haunted Bill and Henderson anchors the film with a subtly moving performance as Joy.
The script is shot through with extremely black humour and there are several very funny lines. As with Happiness, Solondz's skill lies in presenting scenes that are simultaneously darkly funny and unbearably sad, such as when Joy confronts the ghost of her ex-boyfriend (Paul Reubens) who shot himself.
Life During Wartime would benefit enormously from being screened on a double bill with Happiness, since several scenes from the first film are echoed, referenced or riffed on throughout the film. However, the plot doesn't stand up quite as well on its own – it meanders around too much and drags considerably in the middle section.
Despite its unfocussed plot, Life During Wartime is still worth seeing thanks to superb performances and a cleverly written script that's simultaneously darkly funny and painfully emotional. See it on a double bill with Happiness if at all possible.
Life During Wartime (15)