Life During Wartime

Don’t Bring Someone You Love to This


Starring: Ally Sheedy, Allison Janney

By Robert Patrick

There is a black cloud over these people’s heads. I mean, not a traditional black cloud, but a black cloud so absent of light that it lacks the principles of nature. Everyone in this film is clicking their teeth out of nervous despair, feigning smiles for the benefit of others, and lashing out at each other with so much malice that their hands quiver. Everything also seems soaked in a weird yellow filter that further putrefies the experience of each episodic exposition of anger and sorrow. In short: “Life During Wartime” is not easy to watch. Some things are an acquired taste, sure. But acquiring a taste for director Todd Solondz is like acquiring a taste for pureed sardines and shards of glass – it can happen, but it’s pretty unlikely.

Solondz loves to scoop up piteous characters, marble them in unsavory situations, then watch them melt together like a perverse pint of ice cream. Yeah, that sounds like a pretty bizarre simile, but it’s the only one that fits this particular cognitive puzzle. “Life During Wartime” is essentially a loose sequel to “Happiness”, only with different thespians playing the leads (Andy is now played by Paul Reubens instead of Jon Lovitz? I’m not even going to ask). The film follows three sisters – Joy, Trish, Helen – as they attempt to reconcile their past with future mistakes. Ghosts of dead husbands uncoil out from the subconscious of their dreams, older men pant for their attention, and children ask graphic questions about pedophilic rape. The movie is about as pleasant as it seems, and even more narcissistic than it assumes itself to be.

There are some beautiful shots in the film, after you use your fingertips to dig them out of the rubble, that are hauntingly ethereal: a spectral overhead shot of a woman floating through an empty parking lot at night, her gown wafting in the indiscriminate night breeze, as she emptily walks along; the solemn pacing of a forlorn father in the background of a scene, ominous and fleeting as a sliver of light through the branches of a tree; and other scenes of similar spatial beauty. Unfortunately, the same sad elegance that is the film’s strength is also its downfall. The problem here is that the overindulgence in unabridged sadness, cobbled together like a mess of nightmares, is an emotional overload. This movie is so depressing it makes Nicolas Cage’s character from “Leaving Las Vegas” look like Dory from “Finding Nemo”.

The dialogue in the movie choppily sputters like a dying insect’s wings, as grotesque things are explored, such as a mother’s detailed explanation to a ten-year old of what it feels like to get turned on by a man. There are a lot of brooding, melancholy, disturbing sequences; the movie is practically a flipbook of agony. Emotional abuse is the norm, and there isn’t any humor or lightness to break the unsavory monotony of spitting mouths and drenched brows. “Life During Wartime” is much like a soap opera being overdubbed by the sound of a nail gun.

None of the performances are that bad, but none of them are that good, and all of it is just virtually unsettling. I understand that Solondz is marketing the human condition, the excess of emptiness. The way that he goes about it, however, is almost anti-film. This is more of a thesis paper about severe depression, to the point of comical exploitation, than it is a movie about the tumultuous nature of life. Every thing is ramped up to the point of seeming ham-fisted and bombastic.

I would like to give this movie a higher score for some of the more beautiful shots, but the impenetrable dreariness makes me want to go into a lifelong coma of despair.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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