I am a great admirer of Todd Solondz' film Happiness. Having seen all of his feature films save his first, Fear, Anxiety & Depression, it's the only one I really love; while I concede that certain others do interesting things, Happiness strikes so close to my heart - it's so dark, so daring, so horrifying, so cruel, and yet, once you get over the transgressiveness of it, so richly funny, truthful, and profoundly cathartic - that I watch it almost once a year, since I feel compelled to share it with anyone important to me. I've yet to wear it out, having seen it, I should imagine, around a dozen times since its release in 1998.
I don't quite know what to make of Solondz' "sequel" to Happiness, Life During Wartime, now on DVD. It completely changes the cast, and loses much of the first film's humour, while still following the same characters - some (Helen, played here by Ally Sheedy) rather unnecessarily, it seems; the brief digression that deals with her contains one of the funniest scenes in the movie, involving (supposedly) Keanu Reeves, but it is not particularly relevant to the plot or main themes of the film. This is true of much else that is funny in the film - the comedy, insofar as there is any, is nowhere near as inherent to the story as it was with Happiness. In fact, overall, the film is very bleak, as characters struggle to try to a) come to terms with their own transgressions; b) forgive and/or forget the transgressions of others; and c) secure forgiveness for themselves, insofar as it can be found. Much of this involves the younger brother of the Maplewood family, now 13, who has learned for the first time that his father was a pedophile. At least one character, Allen - memorably played by Phil Seymour Hoffman in the first film, here less interestingly characterized by Michael Kenneth Williams, an African-American actor with a perpetually pained expression and a backstory that in many respects doesn't seem to mesh with the previous Allen's - is relegated to a very small corner of the story, mostly only of interest insofar as his actions impact Joy (Shirley Henderson, replacing Jane Adams). Solondz seems more interested in her relationship with the long-dead Andy, whose ghost is here played by Paul Reubens.
There is much more that I could say about the film - for instance, that Jewishness seems a much more significant aspect of the film than it does the previous, with repeated mentions of Israel and a climax at a bar mitzvah; or that the shadow of suicide looms larger over this film than most, with at least two overt suicides figured, one implied, and one earnestly solicited. There are even things I could praise - the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are terrific roles for Charlotte Rampling, Michael Lerner, and Reubens - an inspired casting choice, given that he was once charged with possession of child pornography (...a charge he was cleared on, note).
None of this comes close to making up a substantial review, however, and without being paid to write one, I don't think I'll bother, save to say that when the film ended, I was shocked, having expected at least another half-hour's worth of narrative. I felt highly unfulfilled, and tracked back through the movie in my mind to see if I had perhaps missed something, to justify it ending where it did. In truth, I could see that I had missed things - that watching this film through the filters and expectations of my Happiness-fandom had led me to pay less attention to what it was acutally accomplishing on its own merits. There is substance here, somewhere, I think - interesting stuff being done. Yet either there is not enough of it, or this feeling is not strong enough, for me to want to ever revisit the film, which would be necessary were I to write anything substantial about it. Plus it's really a rather depressing experience, and I'm depressed enough as it is.
So fans of Happiness should, I guess, be cautious in their approach to this film. JR Jones is much more articulate in writing about the film here; Tom Charity's review also jibes with mine, and is here.