Discussing his new movie, Life During Wartime, director Todd Solondz recently said, “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.” With themes including incest, pedophilia, and suicide, these are hardly the type of films you can unequivocably give "two enthusiastic thumbs up" to. So what does that say about someone who not only likes his movies but also likes his least sympathetic character most of all?
Life During Wartime functions as a sequel to Solondz’s 1998 film, Happiness, but with different actors in all of the roles. In Happiness, the large cast was loosely linked by its association with three sisters: Joy, Trish, and Helen. Almost all the characters were the sort of people who will smile and insist everything is great, just great, while hiccupping back sobs and wiping tears from their cheeks. In reality, life was anything but great for Trish and Joy: Joy’s boyfriend committed suicide after she broke up with him, and Trish’s husband was a pedophile who drugged his family so he could rape his son’s friend. Somehow, Solondz managed to present these characters as sympathetic and to find humor in even the most disturbing scenarios; to your horror, you may have caught yourself almost rooting for little Johnny to finish his sedative-laced sandwich, so kindly Mr. Maplewood could have his way with him.
In many ways the most loathsome character in Happiness was Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). The only one of the sisters with at least the outward trappings of a satisfying life (she was a successful poet whose glamorous social life included flings with Salman Rushdie), she was also the only one who insisted she was miserable. “Rape at 11. Rape at 12,” she moaned, flipping though her book of poems. “What do I know about rape? If only I had been raped, then I would know true authenticity.” Utterly callous and insensitive, Helen was thoughtlessly, remorselessly cruel, and totally lacking in conflict. Mr. Maplewood, the child molester, may have been a monster, but he struggled against his nature. Helen, cold and heartless as she was, had no desire to change.
In Life During Wartime, Helen’s life has only gotten better, in contrast to all the other characters, who still struggle with the will to live on a daily basis. Mr. Maplewood, fresh out of jail, tries to rebuild a relationship with his sons and has a crushingly unromantic one-night stand. Joy is haunted by the ghost of her ex-boyfriend, and her current love interest isn’t turning out much better than the last. Trish is such a mess she discusses her sex life with her preteen son and shares her tranquilizers with her young daughter. But things are downright sunny for Helen: now a TV writer in L.A., she lives in a massive house with Emmys tucked into a nook and Keanu Reeves tucked into her bed. Ally Sheedy replaces Boyle in the role, transforming Boyle’s princessy superiority into flinty, New Age–flavored self-entitlement. Helen has become the sort of person who believes everyone wants something from her, and that her life’s purpose is not to help those she can (like her sister) but to say no as firmly as possible. As in Happiness, her lack of self-doubt makes her the most interesting character in the movie. You can feel the energy kick up every time she appears onscreen, then flag again once the more-conflicted, less-confident characters shuffle back into the spotlight and resume their quest for contentment, if not happiness. Helen is no less discontent than her sisters, she just blames the world, not herself. Helen may not be for everyone, but to at least some of us, she’s irresistible.