An identity crisis lies at the core of Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime—one of roles earned and projected. For better or worse, this conflict lies coated with so many layers of awkwardness and dark humor that audiences will likely overlook it, shelving the film in the long list of comedies where nothing really happens. Anyone familiar with Happiness will immediately recognize most of the roles—everyone’s back in this follow-up, though unlike the earlier film, where fucked up people did fucked up things in the name of being fuck-ups, Wartime is about the after-effects of those events—how having a convicted pedophile for a father can screw up childhood, or allowing a person to commit suicide over his love for you can lead to long nights of haunting despair. This is Happiness taken to its logical conclusion—a showcase of why and how humanity becomes mentally perverted, utilizing the demented humor of the first film to accentuate these points. In many ways it’s the perfect sequel—focuses on the muted aftermath of events rather than topping them—and is pretty funny too.
Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), the son of Trish (Allison Janney) and Bill (Ciarian Hinds), is a young student studying to pass his bar mitzvah. One day he races home in tears, claiming a boy at school told him his father wasn’t dead, was actually arrested for pedophilia, and that he too was doomed to sicko love problems. His mother reassures him, though Timmy isn’t convinced—he wants the full logistical rundown of man-on-boy love, which Trish vaguely explains as “anytime a man touches a child”. Meanwhile, she withholds her increasingly intense affair with Harvey (Michael Lerner), the thoroughly normal fat man from across the street, from her children until engagement—a revelation which leaves the recently shellshocked Timmy shaken and unsure of the his new rotund father-figure. To the periphery of this drama is the story of Joy, Trish’s sister; after several years of marriage to the drug-addicted Allen (Michael K. Williams), Joy flees to her sister’s home in Florida, where she’s haunted by the ghost of Andy, an ex-boyfriend who killed himself in light of the scorn she cast upon him ( Mr Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens). Seeking atonement and answers for why nothing in her life seems to go right, she travels from family member to family member, only to discover herself as the biggest obstacle to a successful marriage with Allen. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that.
Wartime’s most important character—the recently released pedo-father, Bill—is also the one with the least screentime. He undergoes several transformations by word of mouth, from father to dead man to pedophile, but none of these are exactly right. During a tragically touching scene where he seeks out Billy (Chris Marquette), his college-age son, he says, almost pleading “I had to find you—to make sure I didn’t turn you into me”. Bill was a pedophile just as he was a father; now he’s just ashamed. As Timmy points out with the line “I just want my father back”, the man can’t hope to become who he once was—will never be a father-figure again. He can only be what people make of him—what he makes of himself—none of which can be very good considering his sense of shame. Those expecting the vulgar perversion of Happiness will find it in spirit only—this is Solondz’s intellectual study of the human condition. Life During Wartime makes a couple of crude comedic punches, but at its heart, this is a film of forgiving and forgetting—a meditation on whether it’s better to forgive those who commit unforgivable sins, or simply forget.