Criterion Collection releases provide remastered picture, sound, and enough special features to be considered reasonably definitive. Traditionally, they are meant to represent some of the most significant films in history. Then there is Todd Solondz’ latest, ‘Life During Wartime.’

Picking up sometime after where ‘Happiness‘ left off, we follow the current happenings of sisters Trish (Allison Janney), Joy (Shirley Henderson), and Helen (Ally Sheedy).

Trish has begun to date Harvey (Michael Lerner) for the simple fact that he seems normal. Her ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) was just released from prison for child molestation charges. He is desperate to make amends with his family, especially his oldest son. Trish’s middle child Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is almost ready for his bar mitzvah and begins asking questions about what happened to his father.

Joy leaves her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) to be with the rest of the family in Florida. Former flame Andy (Paul Reubens) appears to her as a ghost, since he committed suicide after their brief relationship ended. She visits Helen who is a successful screenwriter in California, but certainly not happy with life.

Anyone familiar with Todd Solondz’s infamous film ‘Happiness’ will probably recognize a lot of character names and details. That’s no coincidence. This movie is a loose sequel that exists in a parallel universe where all of the characters are played by different actors. Some of the figures from the first film are so identifiable, they are easy to pick out right away, but there are some instances where the recasting makes things disorienting at first.

The decision to follow up on that controversial story is puzzling. It has been 12 years and the characters in ‘Happiness’ were mostly a disturbed bunch that probably had a lifetime of struggles ahead of them. Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to allow viewers to imagine how things played out for them?

Allen was probably the most memorable character of them all in ‘Happiness.’ He was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in that film and he had a lot of material to work with. Michael Kenneth Williams’ version of the character isn’t given very many scenes, relegated to a minor supporting role.

Equally minor a character, but the most memorable (and appropriate) casting substitution is Paul Reubens in for Jon Lovitz. He is absolutely spot on in the role.

The Helen character is only given one lengthy scene which means that Trish and especially the hapless Joy do the heavy narrative lifting for the sisters. The only other character who could be considered a main focus of the story is Bill. His crime is unforgivable, but he comes across as genuinely tortured by it and sincere about his intentions to provide closure for and receive closure from his son. Rather than being the ensemble piece the first film was, this seems much more interested in telling three peoples’ stories and peppering them with familiar characters.

Awkward humor is paramount in a Todd Solondz film and he comes through here but not quite as consistently as before. There are frank sexual discussions that are so inappropriate given the situations, that they are funny (hopefully intentionally). Timing and irony works some subtle magic in terms of lightening the mood occasionally, but since the story is bent on wandering through a post 9/11 world, the tone is consistently dark. None of the characters are happy or content with their lives, but most of them lack the direction to do anything about it.

Special features include: an audio Q & A with Todd Solondz, a making of documentary filled with interviews of the cast, an interview with cinematographer Ed Lachman, a trailer and of course, a booklet featuring a lengthy essay from film critic David Sterritt.

Todd Solondz has certainly produced some films that have been important, groundbreaking or envelope-pushing in some capacity. It’s hard to justify calling ‘Life During Wartime’ one of them. The relationship it has with ‘Happiness’ lends an initial credibility that isn’t entirely deserved. It’s not a completely terrible film, but given the expectations, its existence isn’t completely justified.

It seems that some filmmakers get a free pass based on past films and their latest work is automatically granted a Criterion release regardless of artistic merit. There was a time that this distinction was reserved for important, classic films that were older and would benefit from a nice remastering and a thorough exploration through essays and special features. This is still the majority of what Criterion does, so it’s not an indictment of the whole institution, but the significance of it has been somewhat diluted by this more inclusive approach.

Rated R             97 minutes                        2010

When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

Advertisements