Todd Solondz's breakthrough feature, 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, was so lacerating in its depiction of humanity as a clot of pitiless predators and doomed prey that it practically required a field dressing upon exiting the theatre.
Solondz has dropped off the radar of late, but the good news — or bad news, if you’ve never warmed to his chilly touch — is that this master of the jaundiced worldview is back on top of his game. Life During Wartime is something of a direct sequel to Solondz's 1998 film, Happiness, with one catch: All the characters are played by different actors.
If you haven't watched Happiness in 12 years, it's not such a shock. Otherwise, the effect is disconcerting, like tuning in to your favorite soap only to find everyone has a new face. Weird, yeah, but oh-so-Solondz, and somehow it works, in the disturbing, tragicomic way that is Solondz’s hallmark.
Of the three Jordan sisters, Trish (Allison Janney, brilliant in a characterization overflowing with chemically controlled perkiness) has moved the remains of her family to Florida to escape the grim shadow of her past. You'd think the sunny plastic light in Florida would be anathema to their dark prior lives, but no, Trish's husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), jailed for pedophilia, is released from prison as the film begins. Joy Jordan (the waifish, unmoored Shirley Henderson) is having crying jags of her own and heads to that other sun-drenched vacuum, Hollywood, where she meets up with self-obsessed screenwriting sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), who, unsurprisingly, is a callow, chain-smoking, black-clad nightmare. And then there's Joy's dead husband, Andy (Paul Reubens, playing it straight-ish), who returns from the grave to deprive Joy of her namesake.
And so it goes in Solondz's world, which burns even as it turns, rotating on a hellishly warped axis. Call it the aesthetic of un-Happiness. Grade: B