I recently watched Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, the spiritual successor/sequel to Happiness – Life During Wartime contains the same characters as Happiness, but played by an entirely new cast – and both films deal with similar issues. What’s most interesting about them – aside from the story lines, the dynamic between the three sisters (Joy, Helen and Trish) and the people connected to their lives – is the way that Solondz treats his characters. Of course, while it’s expected of a writer to be objective about their characters, with such a bleak view, it would almost be expected of Solondz to turn his characters into cheap punch lines, whereas the reality of the situation is quite the opposite; Solondz makes his characters interesting, developed, and occasionally even sympathetic. What Solondz does is fascinating, he finds humanity within the inhumane landscape of the characters in their world.
Take Lenny for example, the patriarch of the Jordan family (played by Ben Gazzara in Happiness), a man who is disenchanted with his marriage – although as he constantly says “I never used the word divorce” – who simply “wants to be alone.” He even tries to rekindle some sense of passion by having affair, and while we’d expect this to make him even easier to vilify, which he is by his wife, instead there are shades of tragedy and, ironically, genuine emotion, as it is discovered that Lenny suffers from Anhedonia, and is incapable of emotion. This is the kind of thing that Solondz does with the majority of his characters, while, to begin with they’re obscene and – to varying degrees – evil, as they and their stories develop, shades of humanity are revealed and the characters become fully fledged and somehow are made to be sympathetic, a testament to both the ability of Solondz as a storyteller, and his two casts in two different films.
Sometimes though, his characters are shown to be designated villains. At the beginning of Happiness, Joy (here played by Jane Adams) breaks up with Andy (Jon Lovitz), who then proceeds to unleash a tirade that is at once desperate and vitriolic and desperate, and its easy to hate him. But it is later learned that he killed himself; now, while this doesn’t inherently make him likeable, it highlights his desperation, it makes him human and more than just the hatred he levels at Joy. Even in Life During Wartime, Andy (now played by Paul Reubens) is seeking closure, even if he does it by haunting Joy (now Shirley Henderson), he claims that he needs her. Happiness is not found by him, as Joy banishes him from her life. Even if he still hasn’t found happiness, across both films, Andy is not a monster at all, he is instead a lonely man, still searching for peace.
When viewing Happiness and Life During Wartime as two pieces together, a fascinating journey is created for all of these characters, and their quests for happiness become more layered and more dynamic as their stories continue. Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffmam in Happiness and Michael Kenneth Williams in Life During Wartime) begins as a boring, miserable guy who makes obscene phone calls to women, including Joy. After many rejections, he begins to pay attention to Kristina, a tenant in his building, who killed a man that raped her. Of course, only in a Todd Solondz movie could two people who would normally be dubbed a pervert (Allen) and a killer (Kristina) find some semblance of happiness. In Life During Wartime, Allen is less desperate and alone, he is married to Joy and tries to control his compulsion to make obscene phone calls. When Joy leaves for a while to go to Florida – a place where Trish claims the past is “dead and buried” – to reassess her life, Allen kills himself and Joy is haunted by his ghost. He is once again a lonely man, urging Joy to kill herself so they can be together. As with Andy, Allen is banished from her life, and while Allen may not find piece, his humanity is crystal clear, and for all his deviance, there is a real human being beneath the surface.
This two-film consideration is also the best way to consider the most inhumane and perhaps outright villainous character in the films: Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker in Happiness, Ciarán Hinds in Life During Wartime). Bill is happily married to Trish, or so it seems, in spite of his fascination with his son’s friend, who he abuses, as well as saying he “jerks off” at the thought of abusing his son, Billy. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say Bill is a monster. At the end of Happiness he is imprisoned for his crimes. In Life During Wartime we see he is released from prison and, in traditional Solondz fashion finds brief solace in the arms of a self-professed “monster”, Jacqueline (Charlotte Ramplimg). Bill spends the majority of Life During Wartime trying to find his eldest son, Billy. He very bluntly asks him about his sex life, wanting to know if his son will follow in his footsteps, content that his son won’t be like him, he leaves. It is only in the final moments of Life During Wartime that we see Bill’s fate. When Timmy, Trish and Bill’s middle child, fresh from his bar mitzvah, says he wants his father to be in his life. Then we see Bill materialise, just as Andy and Allen did before him. Bill is another spirit, and while he remains a bad person, the potential for humanity that lurks beneath Bill is seen through the cracks, wanting nothing more than for his eldest son to be like anyone but him.
All in all, Solondz’s characters and the world they inhabit are anything but likeable, they’re perverts, pedophiles and killers. The genius of Solondz’s storytelling is that he doesn’t exhibit his characters like a gallery of freaks, he treats them with a detached curiosity, he allows their stories to unfold objectively, and in doing so, while they may seem inhumane, he shows that within it all, there are traces of humanity, perhaps they’re the better angels of the devils that inhabit the world of Happiness and Life During Wartime, wanting nothing other than to find their own joy, in spite of the world they live in and all the people around them; they’re all various degrees of monstrous, but that is far from all they are, as their angels fight to be heard.