Life During Wartime -- Film Review

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Venice Film Festival -- Competition

VENICE -- Glancing backward at the 1998 "Happiness," his postmodern look at a dysfunctional family, Todd Solondz liberally updates the characters and their stories in "Life During Wartime," a heady mix of deadpan humor that boldly uses such topics as pedophilia, race and terrorism to plead the need for forgiveness at a personal and national level.

The setting again is Miami's Jewish community, with its bar mitzvahs, neuroses and fixation on Israel, which becomes an instant microcosm for all America. Profound in its funny hipness, it shows Solondz as the true heir to Woody Allen, albeit on a far kinkier and politically/socially engaged level. This could be the film that enlarges Solondz's list of loyal fans, who at the moment are clustered around film festivals.

The film's mysterious early scenes set the tone of surreal outrageousness and get the viewer to work connecting the narrative dots. In the first scene, crack, robbery and infidelity undermine the marriage of the childlike Joy (waiflike British actress Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams of "The Wire" fame), her imperfectly reformed con husband. Their teary breakup in a New Jersey restaurant is paralleled to an intense dinner in Miami during which Joy's sister, Trish (Allison Janney), falls in love with the older Harvey (Michael Lerner) after discovering that he, too, loves Israel.

The two scenes connect when Joy flees to the overprotective arms of her family in Miami, followed by the ghost of her aggressive ex, Andy (Paul Reubens aka Pee-wee Herman), who committed suicide but still is after her. Sleepwalking that night through a deserted shopping center, Joy is accompanied by the film's funny-thoughtful theme song about a country living through a war.

Another major character is Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish's freckled 12-year-old, who is busy writing about "what it means to be a man" and coming to terms with the traumatic discovery that his father, William (Ciaran Hinds), is serving time in jail for child molestation. Solondz has a unique ability to illuminate serious themes like this through absurd dialogue, for instance, in Timmy's interrogation of his future stepfather Harvey to find out whether he, too, likes little boys.

Timmy also has pressing questions about what it means to forgive and whether it's possible to forgive terrorists if they had a reason for what they did. All he receives, of course, are shocked, pat answers.

Meanwhile, William has been released from prison and is looking for his former family. Hinds is a magnetic actor, and when he is picked up in a bar by a rich, unhappy woman (Charlotte Rampling), sparks fly. His final confrontation with his older son, Billy (Chris Marquette) -- one of the few scenes played straight in the film -- is highly moving in its exploring the limits of forgiveness.

Miami kitsch is tastefully spoofed in Roshelle Berliner's pastel sets, an apt backdrop for Ed Lachman's balanced camerawork. Not to be forgotten among the impeccable cast is Ally Sheedy as Joy and Trish's wildly successful and self-centered sister and Rich Pecci as Harvey's intelligent but socially unavailable son.

Production: Werc Werk Works
Sales: Fortissimo Films
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Chris Marquette, Rich Pecci, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Riley Snyder, Renee Taylor, Michael Kenneth Williams
Director-screenwriter: Todd Solondz
Executive producer: Elizabeth Redleaf
Producers: Christine Kunewa Walker, Derrick Tseng
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designer: Roshelle Berliner
Music: Doug Bernheim
Costume designer: Catherine George
Editor: Kevin Messman

No rating, 96 minutes