Todd Solondz is a shock jock of a filmmaker, a writer-director who always keeps a glass of cold water for throwing at the audience handy. Which almost but not quite prepares you for "Life During Wartime," his latest sharp-edged comic tragedy about families, forgiveness and the unsettling ironies that can threaten to unravel even an ordinary life.
The film, a taut and tantalizing mix of salty bites and lazy blanks, stars Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy as the latter-day Jordan sisters Joy, Trish and Helen, respectively, that Solondz first introduced in the uneasy brilliance of 1998's "Happiness." Though he is playing fast and loose with the details of their lives and with new actors in place, the essence of unrelenting bad fortune and bad timing remains.
It all begins with a set piece that echoes "Happiness'" opening moments — a romantic dinner drenched in candlelight and discomfort — as Joy learns that her husband has slipped back into his nasty habit of making seedy sex calls to strangers. A break from her marriage, which you suspect was coming even before the bad news was served up with desert, seems in order.
Ever a glutton for emotional punishment, Joy heads into the arms of her sister Trish and her mom ( Renee Taylor) in Florida. Families of the button-pushing sort are often the starting point for the downward spiral that the filmmaker clearly enjoys teasing out, though perhaps never better realized than in his 1995 adolescent heartbreaker, "Welcome to the Dollhouse."
Just as there was little happiness in "Happiness," there is no joy for Joy as she is battered by her mom's bitterness, Trish's misplaced hopes and the bipolar emotional swings of ex-boyfriend Andy, now deceased but still insistent and very slyly played by Paul Reubens.
In truth, Reubens' character isn't the only one afflicted. Many of "Wartime's" denizens lurch between placid discussions and searing sudden rages or observations so sexually explicit as to leave you longing for good old-fashioned innuendo.
What helps patch over the excess emotional duress is the film's uniformly strong acting ensemble, with Henderson the first among equals. Wide eyes welling in tears, body draped in long, loose dresses, she is mesmerizing to watch, letting naïveté float around her like gossamer. All that softness and vulnerability proves an excellent punching bag, and nearly everyone takes their shots, led by the hyperkinetic Sheedy as the successful screenwriting sister who's decamped to Hollywood, literally, figuratively and hysterically (as in laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally deconstructing) vibrating through her scenes.
Trish, of course, has her own set of thorny issues with her new love interest Harvey ( Michael Lerner), the upcoming Bar Mitzvah for her son Timmy, an angelic Dylan Snyder, and the unexpected release of her pedophile ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who Timmy has been told is dead. Timmy serves as the innocent counterweight — questioning all the drama, ever in search of his father, trying to understand how to make that transition to adulthood.
Like the filmmaker's earlier work, "Life During Wartime" is full of exceedingly uncomfortable insight. One of Solondz's artistic gifts is his ability to throw bizarre human behavior into the mix — Hinds as a pedophile family man and his disturbing flashbacks the most jarring example — and yet create family dynamics that feel remarkably familiar.
Silence and space become characters of note too, which the filmmaker, along with director of photography Ed Lachman and production designer Roshelle Berliner, manipulate beautifully. Characters are either slightly too close for comfort or slightly too far apart. Tense moments linger while we contemplate the possibilities. The words, when they finally come, spit out like a rotten egg. A staccato exchange between Bill, just out of prison and bedding the prickly rich older woman he's met in a hotel bar, Charlotte Rampling's Jacqueline, is priceless.
What Solondz does so well is create unthinkable moments in a "Leave It to Beaver" world, where unmentionables are aired in the most innocuous ways to startling effect. In "Life During Wartime," he's done just that, creating a relationship agitprop that pops and sizzles; just be careful not to get burned.