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Life During Wartime

~Winner ~ Venice Film Festival ~ Best Screenplay

Todd Solondz is a shock jock of a filmmaker, a writer-director who always keeps a glass of cold water handy for throwing at the audience. Which almost but not quite prepares you for Life During Wartime, his latest sharp-edged comic tragedy about families, forgiveness and the unsettling ironies that can threaten to unravel even an ordinary life. The film, a taut and tantalizing mix of salty bites and lazy blanks, stars Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy as the latter-day Jordan sisters Joy, Trish and Helen, respectively, whom Solondz first introduced in the uneasy brilliance of 1998’s Happiness. Though he is playing fast and loose with the details of their lives and he’s put a new cast of actors in place, the essence of unrelenting bad fortune and bad timing remains. It all begins with a set piece that echoes Happiness’ opening moments – a romantic dinner drenched in candlelight and discomfort – as Joy learns that her husband has slipped back into his nasty habit of making seedy sex calls to strangers. A break from her marriage, which you suspect was coming even before the bad news was served up with dessert, seems in order. Ever a glutton for emotional punishment, Joy heads into the arms of her sister Trish and their mom in Florida. But just as there was little happiness in Happiness, there is no joy for Joy as she is battered by her mom’s bitterness, Trish’s misplaced hopes and the bipolar emotional swings of ex-boyfriend Andy, now deceased but still insistent and very slyly played by Paul Reubens. In truth, Andy isn’t the only one afflicted. Many of Wartime’s denizens lurch between placid discussions and searing sudden rages or observations so sexually explicit as to leave you longing for good old-fashioned innuendo. What helps patch over the excess emotional duress is the film’s uniformly strong acting ensemble, with Henderson the first among equals as Joy. Wide eyes welling in tears, body draped in long, loose dresses, she is mesmerizing to watch, letting naïveté float around her like gossamer. All that softness and vulnerability proves an excellent punching bag, and nearly everyone takes their shots, led by the hyperkinetic Sheedy as Helen the successful screenwriting sister who literally, figuratively and hysterically vibrates through her scenes. Trish, of course, has her own set of thorny issues with her new love interest Harvey, her son Timmy’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah, and the unexpected release of her pedophile ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who Timmy has been told is dead. Timmy serves as the innocent counterweight – questioning all the drama, ever in search of his father, trying to understand how to make that transition to adulthood. Like the filmmaker’s earlier work, Life During Wartime is full of exceedingly uncomfortable insight. One of Solondz’s artistic gifts is his ability to throw bizarre human behaviour into the mix – Hinds as a pedophile family man with disturbing flashbacks the most jarring example – and yet create family dynamics that feel remarkably familiar. – Betsy Sharkey, The Los Angeles Times
Showtimes: 

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Directed by: 
Todd Solondz
Running Time: 
96
Country(ies): 
USA
Language: 
English
Starring: 
Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciarán Hinds, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling
Screenplay by: 
Todd Solondz

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