Todd Solondz’s new film, Life During Wartime, is a sequel of sorts to his controversial 1998 film Happiness, although with an entirely new cast.
On its release, Happiness was denounced as “anti-suburban” and Universal Studios pulled its distribution on “moral grounds”.
This is not a huge surprise. Solondz’s subject matter included a seemingly perfect father raping two of his young son’s friends.
Happiness was shocking. It unblinkingly focused on alienated, unhappy lives, and the impossibility of attaining and maintaining “happiness” in the form that capitalism tries to sell us. It was also very funny.
It told the story of the Jordan family. Trish, the member of the family who appeared the most together, had an idealised suburban lifestyle – “happiness” – until her husband was exposed as a paedophile.
Solondz seemed to find pain and struggle in every life and was accused of being a misanthrope.
Life During Wartime is set a decade later.
It opens with two dinners: Joy tearfully separates from her unfaithful husband, Allen, in New Jersey, while Trish falls in love with “normal” older man Harvey in Miami.
She is drawn to him because “he loves Israel”.
The sisters are reunited when Joy moves out to Florida. At the same time, Trish’s ex-husband Bill is released from jail and sets off to look for his eldest son, who is away at university.
Solondz’s Miami is all astroturf, too bright sunshine and ice cream colours, against which the darkest of personal struggles take place.
Trish’s youngest son, Timmy, is about to have his bar mitzvah. He is trying earnestly to learn to be a man in time.
His chance discovery that his father is not in fact dead, as he has been told, but a convicted paedophile, forces him to grapple with the moral complexities of forgiveness.
How to deal with the pain of life – whether to forgive and remember or to forget and deny suffering – is a constant theme. The implication is that this is true for societies as well as individuals.
For Trish, “the past is the past, dead and gone – we live in Florida now”. Joy, meanwhile, is haunted by the ghosts of failed relationships.
Timmy’s attempts to negotiate his transformed emotional terrain are complicated by the duplicity of the adults’ “moral values”, resulting in confusion over everything that matters to him.
This includes the nature of his father’s crimes and how to reconcile the 9/11 bombings.
Trish’s eldest son is the most clear-eyed. Confronted with his father after a decade, he has not forgotten and neither can he forgive.
Solondz has said about the US that, “We are the country that suffers isolation and alienation more than any other.”
Life During Wartime, like Happiness, is bleak in its description of the depths of that isolation.
It is blackly funny about people’s attempts to make reality match the illusion of intimacy and warmth that surrounds them.
By using different actors for his “sequel”, Solondz shows us the Jordans as different people, changed and reinvented by the intervening ten years.
In the case of the other Jordan sister, Helen, success and age have added bitterness to her self-absorption.
Trish’s desperation for “normality” prevents her from facing any truths and condemns her to a life of pretence. Bill is tormented, doomed to live apart from those he loves.
If this sounds grim, it is. But it is also tender, poignant and weird.
Solondz’s return to the Jordans is more political and thoughtful than Happiness.
In my view neither film is misanthropic.
His characters may all be deeply flawed, but they are human and
understandable. They are trying to find their way in a society riven with contradictions.
In Life During Wartime the picture-perfect, sanitised and smug life of a Jewish middle class family is exposed as being fractured and profoundly alienated.
This is Woody Allen with very sharp teeth.
Idealisation of the status quo – which also lies at the root of the “happiness industry” currently making billions out of human misery in the US – is portrayed as part of the problem, not the solution.
In the US, a country living during wartime, reality has an unpleasant way of disrupting the airbrushed ideal.
In the same way, the pariah Bill seems to taint the pristine suburban home in his family’s absence.
Life During Wartime is out at cinemas this Friday 23 April