Todd Solondz’s Palindromes employed eight different actresses for the same role as a means of proving a point that the director then felt inclined to bluntly state at film’s conclusion: nothing, and nobody, changes. It’s a pessimistic worldview that had become a crutch, an easy way of justifying not only his tableaus of suffering and misery but also his creative stasis. Unfortunately, his latest—a sequel of sorts to Happiness, his final work which effectively balanced compassion and condescension—finds Solondz still stuck in a rut.
As with Palindromes, Life During Wartime revolves around a casting gimmick, with its predecessor’s roles now embodied by all new performers. And once again, that conceit is intended to convey how no amount of surface modifications can alter man’s brutish, animalistic nature, as well as the fact that human contact only leads to unhappiness. Solondz’s intuitive feel for the ugliness of New Jersey and Florida malls, diners, and streets lends his material a certain repugnant evocativeness. Yet his central conceptual stunt frustrates empathy for his characters, who are so thoroughly reduced to gross, facile caricatures that when the director finally attempts to elicit serious dramatic engagement via the reunion of released pedophile Bill (Ciarán Hinds) and his tormented son Billy (Chris Marquette), the gesture feels far too little, too late.
The patchwork-quilt story’s equilibrium is undone by excessive emphasis on looking down upon its glum transplanted Jersey-ites, who are frequently turned into Jewish stereotypes and, from hippie-dippy crybaby Joy (Shirley Henderson) to her domestic sister Trish (Allison Janney), unfailingly find in Florida the exact same sadness that previously plagued them up north. Such repetition matches Solondz’s bleak outlook on existence, but that attitude is unjustified by a film that too often takes diversions into cheap, above-it-all humor, and then attempts to attain gravity through multiple third-act speeches that bludgeon home its primary arguments about Forgiveness and Forgetting. Verbal and narrative regurgitation inevitably leads to torpor, which is alleviated only by a few, initially amusing casting switcharoos (Paul Reubens subbing for John Lovitz, The Wire’s Michael K. Williams standing in for Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the occasional, randomly nasty quip. In the end, though, no one learns anything new in Life During Wartime, including us.