Reimagining ‘Happiness’ 

Todd Solondz can’t wait to get to simmering Chicago, the next place he’ll be promoting his uncompromising new drama, “Life During Wartime.”

Unfamiliar with Mark Twain’s appraisal of The City’s seasonal chill factor — “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco” — New Jersey native Solondz craves heat and humidity.

But, recently lounging in a climate-controlled suite at the Prescott Hotel during an interview to promote the movie that opens Friday, the 49-year-old director seems to have found his comfort zone.

Comfort is a feeling Solondz rarely affords audiences in “Happiness” (1998), his award-winning portrait of suburban malaise and depravity, and “Wartime,” featuring the same characters but an all-new cast.

Yet, his stories are not without empathy, even for Bill, the sexual predator played in the original by Dylan Baker and now by Ciarán Hinds.

“The movie is an exploration of the capacity we have to accept humanity,” he says of “Wartime.” “I have no particular interest in pedophilia, for instance, except as a metaphor for that which is most demonized, feared and loathed. To what extent can we accept that?

“There’s a constant struggle between our capacity for kindness and for cruelty, and I’m exploring it through this prism of forgiving and forgetting. You can have parents whose child is murdered, and if they’re of a certain religious orientation, they might be inclined to forgive. Other parents might want vengeance. They’re both valid responses.”

Solondz doesn’t think of “Wartime” as a sequel; he prefers to call it a reimagining.

“If you’re looking for replication of the experience of ‘Happiness,’ there might be disappointment,” he says. “This has a different spirit, maybe more mournful. It’s a post-9/11 film, and more politically overt. It speaks to our insulation from the reality of the war and the coffins coming home. And the characters have changed.”

To dramatize those changes, Solondz recruited different actors, hoping they would give his follow-up a new look and feel. He cites Paul Reubens — seen in “Wartime” as Andy, a ghostly suicide victim — as an example.

“I loved Jon Lovitz playing Andy in ‘Happiness,’ but Paul has a history that lends extra pathos to the character,” Solondz says, presumably referring not only to Reubens’ heyday as Pee-wee Herman, but also to his 1991 arrest on indecent-exposure charges. “I think the audience is aware of that history, and they’ll be surprised to see what he brings to the part.

“That’s what made ‘Wartime’ a fresh, exciting experience for me — continuing this story I started telling 12 years ago, but with new shades, ideas, thoughts and colors. Doing the same movie twice, that’s not something that interests me.”


Life During Wartime

Starring Shirley Henderson, Paul Reubens, Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy

Written and directed by Todd Solondz

Not rated

Running time 1 hour 37 minutes

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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