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Life During Wartime
UKScreen Rating:

Life During Wartime – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The ironically-named Joy (Henderson) works with criminals to rehabilitate them – having worked her magic on Allen (Williams), she ended up marrying him – but things aren’t going too well and she needs to take a break, so she heads to Florida to stay with her mother for a while.
Her sister Trish (Janney) and the overweight and middle-aged Harvey (Lerner) fall in love on their first date. She’s delighted to have met a “normal” person after her last husband – and father of her son – Bill (Hinds) turned out to be a paedophile.
When he was jailed, she thought it would be easier just to explain to young Timmy (Snyder) that his father had died, which makes things a bit awkward when he’s released from prison. Their older son Billy (Marquette), who’s now at university, remembers his father for what he was – but he remembers him fondly, nevertheless.
Trish has some explaining to do when Timmy comes home from school, being teased that his Dad is a paedophile, being told that this will make him gay – neither of which concepts that he understands.
She ties to explain them as palatably – and simplistically – as she can, which lead to unforeseen circumstances when Timmy gets to meet Harvey – a meeting on which everyone’s future happiness relies.
Bill, meanwhile, finds that trying to reconnect with his past and build a new future aren’t easy.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

This is an interesting concept – it’s ostensibly a sequel to the auteur’s 1998 film Happiness, in which Joy leaves boyfriend Andy and hooks up with Allen, while her sister Trish is married to Bill, who turns out to be a paedophile, who ends up going to prison for abusing his son Billy’s school friend – and so on.
But this is not like any other sequel – the character names are the same, but the actors are different – sometimes even the races are different. Most of the key individuals reappear – but often as different characters, with different personalities – only the names haven’t been changed!
One of the characters receiving frequent visitations of past lovers just adds to the feeling that this is more of a gimmick, than a film in its own right.
Life During Wartime isn’t really the sort of standard drama where it’s easy to engage with the characters – few of them come close to being the kind of people we can – or would even want to – identify with.
The main ironic theme of the first film – Happiness, which explored the misery of its protagonists – is supposedly replaced by a theme of forgiveness this time around. But while people talk about forgiving and forgetting, there’s not actually much forgiving or forgetting going on. Such discussions seem to be more of a contrived maguffin than a coherent philosophy underpinning this world.
Set in the Jewish suburbs of southern Florida, as Timmy is approaching his Bar Mitzvah, this also dabbles lightly in religion, but fails to use this to much effect.
But the brutality of the deep black humour and the unremitting bleakness of everything that happens live on from Happiness.
But it’s darker, bleaker and more pessimistic than its predecessor.
All of the performances are fine – including a striking, pained cameo from Charlotte Rampling, as a bitter cougar with no self respect.
It’s difficult to see who might enjoy this film – and certainly watching it with Happiness in mind will make it an entirely different experience for the viewer.
The characters in Happiness are generally more sympathetic than they are here, and on the rare occasions where it seems to attempt a standard narrative, it strays too far from believability.
At times it’s funny, in a cutting way, but there are no moments of true levity in this well-written and proficiently-performed film that fails to engage on an emotional level – or at least fails to leave you with any sense that having spent another hour and a half in the company of these characters, you – or they – have become any more worldly-wise.
The film is perhaps at its best when it’s dabbling in satire, but it doesn’t seem to have much to say about society.
It’s beautifully stark in its production design and simplistic in its story telling. It’s intentionally depressing and inexplicably satisfying for it.

Opens nationwide 23rd April 2010

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