Not in the Pursuit of Happiness

still7 Not in the Pursuit of Happiness

“It’s good to be with someone who isn’t weird, or screwed up, or sicko pervy,” says Allison Janney in Life During Wartime. Obviously, she is not talking about her director, Todd Solondz. Only the brave or genuinely perverse ever get through his offbeat films. A favorite of film festival eccentrics but studiously avoided and ignored by the general public, he makes movies about dysfunctional suburbanites who cry out for compassion and sympathy without earning a shred of compassion. This one is no different. It’s an unnecessary sequel to the creepy 1998 Happiness, which was about everything except the title. Many of the same characters return, played by different actors, making head scratching inevitable.

What some critics praise as astute and compelling, I find juvenile and fraught with hysteria.

Joy (England’s Shirley Henderson), the eldest of the three Jordan sisters, is an emaciated vegetarian who has never recovered from the suicide of her ex-boyfriend Andy (would you believe Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman?), who pays her visits in green makeup from beyond the grave. Mostly, she just endures the needling whines of her grotesque mother (Renee Taylor) and husband Allen (formerly Philip Seymour Hoffman, replaced by Michael K. Williams), a black crack head who spends his time making obscene phone calls. Middle sister Trish (the excellent Ms. Janney) is trying to forget the past and her pedophile husband, Bill (once a memorable Dylan Baker, now played by a less effective Ciaran Hinds), a psychiatrist who was sent to prison for sodomizing boys. In California, third sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) has given up hopes for a career as a poet and is struggling with the harder but more lucrative discipline of screenwriting while coping with depression after submitting to the psychological demands of an insane stalker. Meanwhile, as he approaches his bar mitzvah, Trish’s 12-year-old son, Timmy, having just learned about his father’s criminal past, lives in mortal terror of anal rape. Somehow the various subplots intersect in curiously silent rooms and empty streets, as though everyone is away on vacation or already buried six feet under. Several years have passed since the acrimoniously titled Happiness, but nobody has changed or learned anything. They’re still hopeless at relationships and searching in the mud for something pure they can mistakenly call “normal.”

I guess it’s supposed to be a satire of Luis Buñuel, but how can you laugh when the characters are all so despondent and borderline schizophrenic, and you don’t really care what happens to any of them? Mr. Solondz aims poison arrows at the joy of sex, the importance of rational ideals, the hypocrisy of the American middle class, the tragedy of bad advice disguised as therapy and the loneliness of self-deceiving maturity. But what some critics praise as astute and compelling, I find juvenile and fraught with hysteria. There’s no arc here, no real pathos, and the direction is like watching snow melt on the side of a road. (One entire scene is devoted to one man swallowing two bottles of water, without a word; in another, the camera pans across a room in slow motion while a message is recorded on an answering machine. As for dialogue, get this: “Forgive and forget is like freedom and Democracy. But in the end, China will take over and none of this will matter anymore.” Is that a promise? Everyone in the flawed, repetitious and ultimately pointless Life During Wartime (which is not about real life and does not take place during any war) is screwy and on medication. By the time its deliberate pace grinds to an end, you’ll probably reach for a pill yourself.

rreed@observer.com 

LIFE DURING WARTIME
Running time 98 minutes
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
Starring Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Paul Reubens, Renee Taylor, Ciaran Hinds

0 Eyeballs out of 4