My introduction to writer/director Todd Solondz was his disturbing 1998 film Happiness, to which Life During Wartime is a sequel. Happiness was then, and still is one of the most disturbing films I have reviewed as a film critic. It’s the subject matter and where Solondz takes it that makes most of his films so uncomfortable. Life During Wartime is unique in that it picks up about a decade later, and while the characters are the same, he has re-cast every single role with different actors. Some of the actors look and react similar to their 90’s version and others are completely different, even a different race. With the progression of provocative subject matter in our society, fewer things being taboo now compared to the late 90’s, I expected Solondz to push things even farther.

When we last saw the Maplewood family, husband and father Bill (originally played by Dylan Baker, now Hinds) had been exposed for raping his pre-adolescent son’s best friend and also doing inappropriate things with his eldest, Billy (originally played by Rufus Reed, now Chris Marquette). Bill has just been released from prison, but now ex-wife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson, Janney) and her three children have moved to Florida and she has just fallen in love again. Eleven year old middle child Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is having a difficult time with people talking about his family at school and his obsessive fear of being raped. Meanwhile, his younger sister is on Klonopin. Trish’s sister Joy (formerly Jane Adams, now Henderson) has moved on from her boyfriends’ suicide and is now remarried to a sexual pervert.

Happiness is an odd film to make a sequel to, but Solondz’s films following Happiness seemed to make fewer and fewer waves. Life During Wartime is highly disappointing; besides the shocking reveal of Emmy award winner Janney’s breasts, the subject matter is completely tame, comparatively. The actions of Bill are discussed and re-hashed throughout the film, but nothing even comes close to all the uncomfortable silences and dialogue he presented in the first film. The most evocative scene in the movie occurs when Bill visits his son Billy in college and asks him if he has the same fantasies.

Many of the same themes exist in this sequel and there is one suicide, but again, it never matches what we would expect from Solondz. You can’t help but watch Solondz's work and imagine some of the controversial subject matter is personal in some way. Is the film maker losing his edge? Of all his films I have seen, this is the tamest. But is that due to American cinema’s diluted subject matter? We may never know, but if Solondz wants to continue making films for these small audiences, he will have to offer something more than 8pm subject matter that we might see any day of the week on HBO.

Final Thought - A much softer sequel.

Grade C-

By: Dustin Chase W.

Editor: Michael Woody