The term ‘sequel’ suggests a cinematic safety net for filmmakers and audiences alike; bigger and better than before, but immediately familiar and easily accessible. Sequels are, of course, also associated with the role of cinema as a commercial enterprise, and it is rare that Hollywood invests in a follow-up to an unsuccessful film, unless there is a palpable sense that the core market was not adequately targeted. In fact, sequels are so synonymous with the Hollywood mainstream that they represent the antithesis of American independent cinema, which is defined more by its social-political sensibility and aesthetic experimentation than it is by box office returns. However, some American independent filmmakers have navigated the cinematic territory of the sequel; Richard Linklater revisited the characters of his backpacker romance Before Sunrise (1995) with Before Sunset (2004), while Kevin Smith caught up with the convenience store slackers of his debut feature with Clerks 2 (2006). Both directors were able to comment on the passing of time through characters that were already familiar to their small but loyal audiences.
Life during Wartime finds Todd Solondz attempting a similar trick, revisiting the dysfunctional family of his jet-black comedy Happiness (1998) to explore the theme of forgiveness through reference to the seemingly irredeemable acts committed in the earlier film. The work of Solondz, which also includes Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Storytelling (2001), has always been more divisive than that of Linklater and Smith due to his exploration of such subjects as child molestation and statutory rape and his strangely sympathetic attitude towards paedophiles and obscene phone callers. The director must be commended for finding financing for a sequel to a film that many viewers struggled to sit through on its initial release, although Happiness has since become a cult favourite and the subject of some discussion with regards to the suburbanisation of American culture. Solondz also breaks with sequel convention by refusing to bring back the actors from the previous film while aiming to achieve tonal consistency through his finely observed screenplay.
Life during Wartime opens with Allen (Michael K Williams, formerly Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Joy (Shirley Henderson, formerly Jane Adams) celebrating their first wedding anniversary, only for Joy to discover that her husband is still a pervert, prompting a move to Florida where her mother and sisters have relocated. She finds Trish (Allison Janney, formerly Cynthia Stevenson) moving on with her life following the incarceration of her ex-husband Bill for sex crimes and embarking on a romance with the older but ‘normal’ Harvey (Michael Lerner), while Helen (Ally Sheedy, formerly Lara Flynn Boyle) is now writing screenplays in addition to novels, but remains mean-spirited despite receiving attention from Keanu Reeves and Salman Rushdie. Joy struggles to reconnect with her family, and receives ‘visitations’ from former suitor Andy (Paul Reubens, formerly John Lovitz), who committed suicide after being jilted by Joy ten years earlier. Although the early scenes seek to establish Joy as the emotional anchor of Life during Wartime, the focus shifts to the more grimly compelling story strand of Bill (Ciarí¡n Hinds, formerly Dylan Baker), who is released from prison and visits his son Billy, now a college student majoring in sexual deviancy in the animal kingdom, to make sure that the sex crime gene has not been passed on to the next generation.
Solondz’s stab at subverting sequel conventions through re-casting is sometimes distracting, but serves to underline his oft-stated view that, as much as people may try to change, they remain fundamentally the same. Some of the casting changes are more successful than others; Paul Reubens mines the same tragicomic depths as John Lovitz, while Ciarí¡n Hinds is a hulking, haunting presence, a self-declared ‘monster’ who physically embodies the potential threat that was so expertly disguised behind Dylan Baker’s buttoned-down suburban facade. Unfortunately, Ally Sheedy does not so much take over the role of Helen from Lara Flynn Boyle as deliver an exaggerated impersonation of her predecessor, and Michael T Williams is not afforded enough screen time to establish a dramatic link between his interpretation of Allen and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s earlier incarnation.
The title of the film refers to the current political climate in the United States, and there is discussion of terrorism, which Solondz links to the topic of paedophilia, and references to Bush and McCain. Perhaps surprisingly, the director is less interested in criticising the Republican regime than he is in finding forgiveness in its aftermath, while Trish’s insistence that ‘sometimes it’s better not to understand’ suggests that the director may even be questioning the necessity of his own brand of cinematic provocation. While there have been subtle shifts in the cinematic universe of Todd Solondz, there have been more noticeable readjustments in the world of American independent film; in 1999, Happiness received a release through Universal subsidiary Good Machine, while Life during Wartime will rely on the comparatively guerrilla strategy of IFC. It is arguable that Solondz has been somewhat marginalised in recent years, but this ‘sequel’ exhibits a newfound mellowness that those who lost interest following the middle-class mockery of Storytelling may find oddly endearing.