Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is that rare thing, a sequel that actually outstrips its predecessor.
I must say, I was rooting for it. I always thought Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse had been unfairly lumped into “The Films of the 90s,” an estimable category, but ultimately not fit for notable one-offs. Dollhouse was as singular as it was representative. Combining a sense of playful extroversion with a whole lot of suburban misery, the film struck a chord most black comedies of the era (and boy, there were many) did not. It was dark as hell, but illuminated from within, thanks mostly to Heather Matarazzo, the film’s slackjawed star. No matter how much grime Solondz asked us to swallow, little Matarazzo was there with a spoonful of Sweet’N Low. She was just too pathetic not to root for. Or to want to root for.
That quality was sadly absent from Solondz’s next films, Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes. After Happiness, a blend of Bergman and John Waters, you started to think the guy was turning into a one trick pony of shock. Then in Storytelling the horse died, then, in Palindromes, he beat it. It was enough already with the perverts. We got it.
Life During Wartime contains its fair share of dead-horse-beating, but it’s far more patient than Happiness, the film that introduced us to these losers back in 1998. The difference, I think, is that in Life During Wartime, Solondz is as interested in figuring out how his sickos cope with their shame as he is in the shame itself. Happiness, for all its empathy, was really about swinging from shame to shame and cringe to cringe. Like in a horror movie, we wanted to cry, “Don’t go in there!” or in this case, “Don’t molest him!” After a while, Wartime starts pushing up against the same difficulty, but until then, it’s a carefully balanced spinning-plate act. Right when you think a ceramic is going to slip to its belabored and miserable death, Solondz reaches out a hand and gives it a lift. Jokes keep the picture buoyant – and they’re good jokes – whereas in Happiness they seemed only to fling the muck. Oh, but enough of that. When you have Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, and (my darling) Charlotte Rampling, who needs to worry?