Life After Happiness

Lately, the long-revered tradition of the sequel in cinema has been replaced by the newer concept of the reboot (Batman, Star Trek, Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Hulk, etc.) Audiences are expected to consume a re-told story and/or  character as if it were entirely fresh, to toss aside their old memories of earlier versions and accept this one anew. This approach has obvious creative advantages for the filmmakers—they can be free to make what they please without bowing to their predecessors—and financial advantages to studios, as a reboot can attract both old fans and ignorant newbies.

But what happens to the identities of these characters? Are old Batmans, Hulks, Freddies, and Spocks all sitting in a metaphysical room somewhere, dressed in decomposing costumes, wondering what happened to their existential selves? Or do they haunt these supposed reboots, subconsciously altering the viewing experience like a painting painted over?

Todd Solondz’s latest feautre, Life During Wartime, a quasi-sequel to his 1998 film, Happiness, explores this idea—along with a lot of other ideas—using his patented mix of shockingly dark humor and bubble-gum tragedy. Both movies ran in succession at the Egyptian Theatre on Sunday, July 18th, where Solondz, himself, talked afterwards.

Solondz is probably best known for his first big movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, a hilarious and honest depiction of suburban adolescence, with unembellished perspectives on rape and kidnapping. He only further established his reputation as a moral shock-artist with his other films Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes. Despite having vastly different plots, all these movies are kind of connected. They all utilize superb, ensemble casts; are photographed in a bright, colorful style; frequently address rape or sexual deviations; and are all incredibly—at times, uncomfortably—funny. One wouldn’t be surprised to see a character from Storytelling walk into a scene from Palindromes and fit in perfectly.

Still, a sequel from Solondz seems the last thing he would ever do, let alone to Happiness—the story of a very dysfunctional family, the Jordans, each trying to define their own version of the titular emotion with often tragic results. But Life During Wartime immediately answers any questions of why or how in the first scene. The characters of Joy and Allen, originally played by Jane Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, are instead played by Shirley Henderson and Michael K. Williams. Not only are these actors physically different from their former incarnations, but they also bring different societal associations—which Solondz gladly exploits (Williams, for instance, is best known for his role as the gay gangster Omar on HBO’s The Wire, and his character’s dialogue in this movie subtly reflects Omar’s biography conjoined with that of Allen).

In fact, every character from Happiness is played by a different actor in this film, and due to the added fact that time has gone by in the world of these characters, Solondz allows himself to take certain liberties with his own creations. Bill Maplewood, the one-time yuppy pedophile of the original, is now a soul-less ghost of an ex-con. Trish, his former wife, is now a vehement Zionist in love with an older Jew. Billy Maplewood, their son, assumes the greatest transformation: from curious and oblivious ten-year-old to fully-grown college student, all-to-aware of his father’s sexual proclivities.

But Life During Wartime’s centerpiece is actually a character who didn’t even exist yet in Happiness. It’s Timmy, the 12-year-old Bar Mitzvah boy, also the son of Bill and Trish, though completely ignorant of the family’s true history. Timmy wants to become a man, and indeed he does thorughout the course of the movie, but not without first coming to terms with the sins of his father. Essentially, it’s the concept of forgiving and forgetting, which happens to be the subject of Timmy’s Bar Mitzvah speech, as well as the central theme of the film.

When Solondz eloquently addressed the audience after the screening on Sunday, he ended the discussion by talking about how it’s so easy to demonize certain people in life, whether they be a pedophile or Osama Bin Laden. And that sympathy, or forgiveness, is different than simply seeing someone as human. It’s the same with sequels, or reboots. It’s somewhat easy to forget the original (or not know it at all), but it’s not as easy to recognize the old movie as a vital part in the creation of the new, that both exist in context to one another.

- By Joshua Morrison

Life During Wartime opens in limited theatres on July 23rd. For more information, please visit www.wercwerkworks.com/projects/lifeduringwartime.

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