Solondz's 'Wartime' compelling

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:12 AM ET

There are popcorn movies, and there are -- shall we say -- "uncomfortable movies." One difference is, you don't spend a lot of time after a popcorn movie talking about it, beyond whether or not it is awesome.

Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, on the other hand, is an uncomfortable movie that leaves the viewer with plenty to talk about, particularly if you're familiar with Solondz's earlier ironically titled domestic-woes tale, Happiness (to which this is putatively a sequel).

Featuring many of the same characters -- but played by different actors, and with the locale moved to Florida -- it picks up where it left off in its bleak domestic universe, one where much of the emotional collateral damage was caused by a pedophile patriarch, Bill, played here by Ciaran Hinds.

I don't know if this is a negative thing to say about a Solondz film, but there are ultimately glimmers in this one of what could almost be described as hope. I suspect in some corners of his cult fandom, this might be seen as "going soft."

As the movie opens, the luckless Joy (Shirley Henderson) is seen having a morose dinner with her criminal boyfriend Allen (Michael K. Williams), who is contrite, but clearly not in a rush to change his ways. Wandering, and at a loss what to do about her personal life, she's approached by a mood-swinging ex-boyfriend named Andy (Paul Reubens), who we soon come to understand is dead, and is not a friendly ghost.

Suicide, it seems, is a recurring theme in Joy's life, one that follows her right up until the final scene.

Meanwhile, down in Florida, Trish (Allison Janney) is trying to get on with her life as a single mother of three, the younger two children having grown up with the lie that their dad is dead, rather than languishing in jail for being a child molester. Her modest ticket to happiness is her somewhat-older new boyfriend Harvey (Michael Lerner), himself the father of a misanthropic grown son Mark (Rich Pecci).

The thickest clouds of moroseness, however, hang over Trish's young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who is approaching his bar mitzvah with earnestness, some discomfort over his mom's open sexuality (she gets waaay too graphic describing to him how Harvey makes her feel) and renewed curiosity about his "dead hero" dad. It is inevitable that Timmy uncovers the truth, and Trish's overly vague description of what a pedophile does (warning him to yell "if anybody touches you") leads to a misunderstanding that amounts to the only moment of outright comedy in the film.

Bill is released from prison, and makes vain attempts to re-insinuate himself into his older son's life, while falling into an exploitative affair with a sad, equally wounded rich older woman (Charlotte Rampling).

It's a complicated moral landscape that pans out at a depressed "Droopy Dog" pace, a torpor that leaves you that much more unprepared for the left-field moments.


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