Life During Wartime

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4 out of 5 stars
Life During Wartime



"We're still a country at war!" intones a riotously bitchy Ally Sheedy in Todd Solondz's latest---her character, a Hollywood screenwriter surrounded by luxury and self-regard, thinks she's just said something profound. Like the Talking Heads song that lends the title, Life During Wartime feels less like proper reportage and more sprung from a neurotic headspace.

Which it is: Solondz, ever since penning his pedophilic domestic meltdown, Happiness (1998), has only gotten squirmier. (This one's a sequel of sorts, with a new cast of actors.) But something has changed in the director; can it be the dawning of sympathy? Solondz's three sisters---hyperaware mom Trish (Janney), dithering Joy (Henderson) and passive-aggressive Helen (Sheedy, a marvel with a single scene)---have already survived the bomb, dropped on them by Trish's child-abusing husband.

But even though years have passed and she's moved to Florida, Trish's problems continue. Timmy (Snyder), her bar-mitzvah boy, is overwhelmed with bad-touch panic, while Joy is haunted by the dual specters of a pair of defective lovers, one of whom is embodied by the unavoidably creepy Paul Reubens. As if that weren't enough, the awful husband (Ciaran Hinds) is out of jail and heading south for closure. Solondz, who fills his screenplays with caustic observations of modern Jewish life, might, paradoxically, be on to something deeply Old Testament, with damaged parents fatalistically passing along their anxieties. Life During Wartime slices deeply into its characters' weaknesses; gentle Michael Lerner, a suitor for Trish, is doomed. But also in evidence is an unlikely vein of forgiveness (or maybe it's oblivion). Timmy latches on to the literalness of "becoming a man"---has his creator grown up too?---Joshua Rothkopf

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