Todd Solondz's first two features—Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998)—were, in retrospect, movies tethered to their era. A pair of nasty little black comedies, they aimed their sarcasm and contempt at the complacency that had once again settled into America's suburbs after the brief, downbeat interlude of the Bush I recession. What distinguished these films from the postwar tradition of Cheever and Updike, though, was Solondz's aggressive anti-humanism. Targeting the sacred cows of Clinton-era political correctness, Solondz was intent on blaming the victims too. At a time when "womyn" was in wide accepted usage on college campuses, it bordered on subversive to offer up a character like Dawn Weiner, the bullied nerd of Dollhouse who is hardly more likable than her classmate-tormentors.
Life During Wartime, Solondz's fifth feature as a writer-director, is a sequel to Happiness, as well as a transparent bid to reclaim his status as an indie darling. (His most recent films, 2001's Storytelling and 2004's Palindromes, were both critical disappointments.) But in casting back to his prime, and in re-imagining the foibles of Happiness's loosely connected group of sexually frustrated people, Solondz isn't likely to please anyone beyond his dwindling fan base.
That's not to say that Life During Wartime isn't quite funny in places. Solondz's gift for the unexpected one-liner still has the power to sting or delight, accordingly. (In the first scene, a lapsed druggie pledges to do "no more cocaine, no more crack, no more crack cocaine.") But Life During Wartime is primarily amusing for its stunt casting. Although Solondz has brought back nearly all of Happiness's original characters (including a dead one), his deviant's gallery is embodied this time by a new roster of actors.
Which inevitably invites the viewer to measure each performance for its similarities and its differences. ("We all have our pluses and our minuses," as Philip Seymour Hoffman's pervert put it, to a murderer, in Happiness.) So... Ciarán Hinds plays Bill the pedophile more menacingly than Dylan Baker did. Allison Janney does an earthier take than Cynthia Stevenson on Bill's ex-wife. Ally Sheedy, playing a writer "crushed at the enormity of my success," completely outdoes Lara Flynn Boyle in projecting narcissism (no small feat). And in the role of the sniveling doormat Joy, suffice to say that Shirley Henderson is no Jane Addams.
As entertainment goes, this game of compare-and-contrast has its limits. It may distract those familiar with Solondz's work from the recycled nature of this movie's plot, but it won't do much for those who have never seen Happiness. The flawed but ambitious Storytelling at least marked a new direction, turning the filmmaker's misanthropic gaze inward, and thus charting new ethical territory. But Life During Wartime, like its predecessor Palindromes, depends on its gimmicks.
Happiness deserves to be remembered more fondly than the imitations it has since spawned, which include everything from American Beauty, released a year later, to 2006's odious Little Children. But Solondz's vision of American pettiness, amid a backdrop of unprecedented economic prosperity, isn't suited to our lives during wartime.