In Todd Solondz's cavalcade of despair "Life During Wartime," a boy preparing a bar mitzvah speech about forgiveness asks his mother whether one ought to excuse terrorists who have good reasons for their actions. Mortified, she sputters a few platitudes.
Solondz, whose films find caustic humor in sexual aberrancies, suicide and murder, forces us out of our comfort zones, into uncharted waters, and holds our heads under. Is he justified? Should we pardon him?
Not this time.
"Life" is an addendum to his 1998 triumph "Happiness," a comedy so dark it left a ring around the screen. In that film he followed the tribulations of the Jordan family, whose lovelessness, loneliness and depression were heartbreaking yet hilarious. Solondz crafted that film with flawless dramatic assurance and cathartic honesty. He has a rare talent for extracting bleak comedy out of failure, disappointment and embarrassment.
Returning to the same characters and themes 12 years later, he has lost the empathy that made "Happiness" more than an exercise in mockery. The theme of the new film is that making amends for old offenses and forgiving others' misdeeds is the only way to survive in a hostile, uncharitable world. Yet Solondz treats his characters with all the compassion of a child frying ants with a magnifying glass.
In this generally disappointing though by no means badly acted film, Solondz gives us a color- and age-blind casting reshuffle. Bill, the pedophile doctor played by creepy-bland Dylan Baker, has become zero-affect Ciaran Hinds. Doomed suitor Andy, portrayed by Jon Lovitz, returns in ghostly form as Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens. Allen, the oafish obscene caller played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is reincarnated as Michael K. Williams (of "The Wire"). Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy and Shirley Henderson step into the key roles of the miserable Jordan sisters.
The effect is disorienting. It's hard to grasp the thicket of minor characters and subplots unless you've seen the original movie. But if you remember the original (and who could forget Hoffman's hilarious, stellar turn?), the casting switcheroo is vexing.
In the decade since we met them, suburban hausfrau Trish (Janney) has divorced the imprisoned Bill, moved her kids to Florida, and told them that their father is dead. Her hyper-protective treatments of bar mitzvah boy Timmy (played with blank-faced soul by Dylan Riley Snyder) has made him paranoid about the friendly attention of any older males. She is also excited by her fuddy-duddy suitor, Harvey (Michael Lerner), whom she likes mostly because he is staunchly pro-Israel. "It feels so good to be with someone who isn't weird," Trish says on a get-to-know-you date. "Or screwed up," Harvey offers. "Or sicko-pervy," Trish chirps.
Bill, having reached the end of his prison term for sex with underage boys, wants to reconnect with his children. Painfully positive loser Joy (Henderson, with a hippie wardrobe and a shriveled, mournful face) has taken her work rehabilitating offenders several steps too far. She has married the sexually compulsive Allen, a notorious stalker. Successful, psychobabbling poet Helen (Sheedy) has moved to a new plateau of self-disgust as a screenwriter who finds herself "crushed by the enormity of my success." Ever-optimistic Joy replies, "Still, it must be neat going out with Keanu."
Calling the film "Life During Wartime" skews our expectations. This is no home-front drama. Solondz is suggesting that family life is always a combat zone, with atrocities, innocent casualties and post-traumatic stress for all parties involved. He's entitled to his view, but I'm not convinced that he's adding much to our understanding of human nature. The film doesn't feel unflinching, as "Happiness" did, just misanthropic. Solondz seems to have moved into Trish's camp: Everyone is sicko-pervy until proven innocent.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186