Though I wouldn't recommend seeking it out, director Todd Solondz's Palindromes best prepares you for his multi-actor approach to casting. In his 2004 movie, the snarling misanthropist had eight different performers play the same character, making the point that, even if the surface changes, mankind is still relentlessly cruel and self-obsessed. (Todd Haynes later cribbed this approach in I'm Not Here).
Life During Wartime, Solondz's latest, is a sequel to and self-reflection of his 1998 ode to toxic family dysfunction, Happiness. While the cast has been shuffled (different actors have stepped into every major part) and the landscape has shifted, the misery is the same. Solondz's message: People may think they've changed, but they really haven't.
Rooting around in the dark corners of suburbia, the morally dyspeptic auteur returns to his look/don't look aesthetics of drama. Social rot, the erosion of values, hypocrisy in relationships — all his pet themes are on display, with only awkward instances of humor to lighten the mood. Once again we are immersed in the lives of Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy), three Jewish sisters who have fled the gloomy anonymous despair of the New Jersey suburbs for the sunny anonymous despair of the Florida suburbs. They try to heal the emotional wreckage of their lives while ignoring the impact of their decisions on the people around them. Joy flees her recovering sex- and drug-addicted fiance (Michael Kenneth Williams), Trish seeks to replace her convicted child molester husband (Ciarán Hinds) and Helen has become a shallow, unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter.
Forgiveness and forgetting become the barricades to happiness, as each sister indulges in misunderstandings and overreaction, while Solondz fills their encounters with labored wartime metaphors. Acts of verbal terrorism, power struggles, and grandiose self-pity (Joy writes a song that compares her pain to Vietnam, Helen cites the war in Iraq as a reason to dismiss the feelings of others) become the sisters' weapons of choice. But the metaphor doesn't end there, as even Trish's college-aged son tells his pedophile pop he should have "cut and run" as his father explains how hard it was for him to "stay the course" of normal family life.
It's a twisted ode to human self-inflicted suffering that asks the audience to heap contempt on its characters while showing empathy for their pain. No easy task. But there's a lot to admire about Solondz's uneven but fearless mix of compassion and condescension. While the film's situations frequently trade in ironic, knee-jerk nihilism, there's a surprising lack of sarcasm. Solondz is not a misanthropic poseur; his convictions and self-interrogation seem as sincere as they are ugly. And he has a unique feel for the soul-deadening landscapes of suburban culture, presenting them as the external representation of his characters' inner wastelands. Yet his empathy for the children who are neglected by their ego-driven monster parents is powerfully obvious. If there is redemption to be found in his fetid view of modern society, it is in the infinite forgiveness and innocence of the children who puzzle over the behaviors of adults.
In the end, Life During Wartime never achieves the raw impact of Happiness. The film feels too incomplete and self-reflexive to stand on its own. And as proficient as the cast is — especially Charlotte Rampling as a self-loathing older woman, Paul Reubens as the ghost of Joy's suicidal boyfriend, and Ciarán Hinds' sad deviant — they can't quite match the incandescence of the original, which included Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker and Cynthia Stevenson.
Still, it's good to see Solondz tempering his worst instincts to find a path toward redemption, no matter how overgrown with desperation it is. And to suggest, in our post-9/11 world, that forgiveness is the way to find our way through is downright revolutionary.
Opens Friday, Aug. 20, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.