CONTEMPT FOR ONE'S fellow man isn't a social perspective lent much validity in modern American society. The misanthrope is one of the last truly marginalized figures in every contemporary social strata, an ample class of the populace whose point of view is maligned as often as it is omitted altogether. For those of us among this disenfranchised faction, there are few beacons of hopelessness quite so great as director Todd Solondz, whose universe is peopled with none but the most contemptuous and irredeemable among us—which is to say, a fairly accurate representation of humanity as a whole.
In the 12 years that have past since its release, you'd be hard pressed to find a film with as bleak an outlook on the human spirit as Happiness—one of American filmmaking's few misanthropic masterpieces, and Solondz's last great film. The film's disdain for its subjects is relentless; every person is their own private monster, its most sympathetic character is a serial pedophile, and there is no hope for redemption. It's also hilarious—resonant, effortless, honest, and completely pitch (black) perfect from beginning to end. Since then, Solondz has made one terrible movie (the self-defeated Storytelling) and one mediocre one (the laborious Palindromes)—a period marred by critical and financial disaster for the once-promising auteur. And so, a dozen years on, Solondz gives us the risky Hail Mary of Life During Wartime, revisiting characters from his two most beloved films (Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse) and bringing them together in what amounts to something of a sequel.
On its own, Wartime's merits are somewhat dubious: Completely reliant on the projected pathos of its predecessors, its loose vignettes don't so much add up to a movie as they do a kind of disconnected coda—its best bits (including a stunning segment with Charlotte Rampling) are also its most out of place. Its characters entirely recast (this time including Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, and Omar from The Wire, among others), Wartime tries to evoke the strange character fluidity/universality that Solondz experimented with in Palindromes, but more often than not, the feel is more straight-to-DVD sequel than high-minded creative conceit. As a supplement, Wartime offers just enough character exploration to keep the cult sated, but it's another modest work at best—more often empty shock than emotionally resonant. Placed next to its antecedents, Wartime perhaps represents why the creative misanthrope can't maintain more of a voice in contemporary culture: contempt for one's audience just isn't a sustainable creative practice.