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Life During Wartime

a film by Todd Solondz

In 1998, filmmaker Todd Solondz gave the world a film called simply, and possibly deceptively, Happiness. It was a film about dysfunction in all aspects of regular life, but the most stirring, the most controversial part of the film revolved around the usually taboo subject of pedophilia. The most controversial part though (for each person who liked Happiness there were probably ten who despised it), and the way to raise the aforementioned taboo to a whole other level, came with the fact that, for all intents and purposes, the film was a comedy. We as an audience, found ourselves laughing at jokes revolving around the drugging and rape of little boys and the reaction of those around this subtly charming monster, not least of which is his son, of whose friends he has been drugging and raping, and though we inevitably managed to stop ourselves from such suddenly uncomfortable laughter, the laughter was still there, and would come around again before the film was through. Now, a decade or so later and Solondz is back with his dysfunctional family - but this time with a whole new cast playing the same old parts. But the uncomfortable laughter (and the ten-to-one hatred factor) is still certainly there.

And all the old characters, alive or dead, are here, even if they seem to have aged at varying degrees over the past decade or so. Our intrepid child molester, once played by Dylan Baker, now inhabited by Ciaran Hinds has just been released from prison and is stalking his old, estranged family. Paul (Pee Wee Herman) Rubens is seen as the ghost of Jon Lovitz and Michael K. Williams substitutes (and jumps races even) for Philip Seymour Hoffman's obscene phone caller from the earlier film. We even get some characters from Solondz's earlier work, Welcome to the Dollhouse, proving just how incestuous Solondz's cinema, probably rightfully, considering, is.

Allison Janney, taking over for Cynthia Stevenson and Shirley Henderson, subbing for Jane Adams are the main characters in this ensemble piece, playing two of three sisters (Ally Sheedy, covering for Lara Flynn Boyle, is the third) who must deal with the facts that the men they loved are disturbed, and dangerous creatures. The fact that, just like in Happiness, the most seemingly well-adjusted, and most sympathetic character is that of a child molester, should not go unnoticed. This is Solondz once again, daring us to laugh, daring us to sympathize, daring us to go out of our comfort zone, daring us not to look away.

A quite bizarre, yet very matter-of-factly, psuedo-sequel of sorts, Solondz's latest film, curls and snakes its way into our psyche while seeing how far it can go in its storytelling audacity. Janney's character, whose ex-husband is the aforementioned child rapist, tells her son, upon his learning his father is still alive (he was told his father was dead) and is what he is, and upon his exclaiming, "I don't want to be a faggot!" that any touch is a bad touch. This, of course, leads to an inevitable tragic ending for certain characters. It is character acts like this, and many others by prety much everyone involved, that make one feel everything from pathos to downright hatred for most of the characters involved in Solondz's film(s). Again, it is not by sheer happenstance that the most sympathetic character is that of a child molester. Do we dare laugh this time? Do we dare not? [01/01/11]

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