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Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is allegedly a sequel to his 1998 film Happiness but it plays out much more like a parody of that film. The same characters are present but not the actors and those characters come across as shrill, shallow and just plain odd versions of the originals.

For example, Dylan Baker’s tortured and tragic but still relatable Bill Maplewood becomes Ciarán Hinds’ sweaty, repellant version of Bill. He looks and acts creepier and creepier through the film, slowly becoming filthier and more and more removed until he’s nothing more than a shadow in the final scene. The movie slowly reveals that he apparently did partake in the one action that the rejection of which somewhat redeemed him in Happiness, rendering that moment null in retrospect. Shirley Henderson’s Joy has lost all sense of realism and is left utterly spacey, without the sympathy that Jane Adams’ provided. I should note that I am not criticizing the cast, as I’m sure they were acting as directed; I just don’t see how these representations relate to Solondz’s original story. The rest of the performances have similar problems but these two stood to me particularly.

Solondz’s script is similarly confusing. Allison Janney’s conversation with her son about falling in love with a man over a first date reaches near The Room levels of baffling with its explicitness. A number of conversations end in comical non-sequiturs, such as talk of war in Iraq or terrorism completely unrelated to the prior speech. These may be funny in their jarring break from the movie coming close to making sense but they do interrupt the flow of the film, though I believe that to be their intention.

Prominently featured in Billy’s bedroom is a poster for I’m Not There, the film that notoriously featured several actors playing Bob Dylan. I think Solondz meant something by using this prop about his recasting, but my confusion stems not from the actors but the acting. No one seems remotely like their original character and this is more a symptom of the writing than the casting. I can’t call it a mistake because it feels intentional. I think this is what Solondz wanted, I just can’t quite figure out why. 2 ½ stars, and hard to recommend for obvious reasons.

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