Daring discomfited viewers to laugh at shame and suffering, and then wonder why we're laughing, Todd Solondz is back. Life During Wartime shows the misanthropic moralizer as confounding and trigger-happy as ever, his big clown thumb poised over a garish assortment of hot buttons—race, suicide, autism, sexual misery, self-hatred, Israel, and his old favorite, pedophilia. Life During Wartime is both sequel to and remake of Solondz's Happiness (1998). The three Jordan sisters—banal Trish, high-strung Helen, and hapless Joy—are back, albeit played by an alternate trio of actresses (Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Shirley Henderson, respectively). Trish has relocated from New Jersey to Florida, where fragile little Joy arrives for a visit. Newly separated from her husband, Joy is increasingly disassociated. Trish, however, is only a smidge chastened—even though Happiness ended with her model husband, Bill, en route to prison for drugging and raping several of his son Billy's fifth-grade classmates. Now Bill (Ciarán Hinds) is about to be released, just as younger son Timmy (Dylan Snyder), who's been told his father is dead, is preparing to become a man with a bar mitzvah speech full of quasi-religious masochistic imagery. Does the filmmaker have compassion or contempt for his characters? Is it possible to feel both? Solondz's sensibility has obvious affinities to such masters of cruelty as Neil LaBute or the Coen Brothers—but he is less smugly punitive and more obviously tormented. A humanist he's not, but he does seem allergic to hypocrisy.
Janney's overprotective mother provides bad advice to her son (Snyder).
Opens at Varsity, Fri., Aug. 13. Not rated. 97 minutes.