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In his sixth feature film, "Life During Wartime," writer and director Todd Solondz returns to the New Jersey family of his third film, "Happiness." The three sisters and their mother have left suburban New Jersey for Florida and California, where their lives seem even more un-tethered.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Todd Solondz is a skinny guy with a shock of hair and a droning voice that's oddly passionate. He writes deadpan comedies, the bleakest I've seen. His new film, "Life During Wartime," is positively grueling. For better and worse, you'll never experience anything like this movie.

It's a sequel to Solondz's 1998 film "Happiness," despite the fact that all the roles have been cast with different actors who aren't much like their predecessors. The original focused on three disparate Jewish sisters living in New Jersey: one a mousy and miserable teacher, one the author of arty, titillating short stories, and the third a chirpy housewife and mother. "Happiness" was a broad satire with that ironic title hanging over it like a mushroom cloud. There were off-screen suicides, a murder and a subplot about a psychiatrist, the husband of the housewife, who molests little boys.

The tone of "Life During Wartime" fluctuates even more wildly, and I'm frankly still wrestling over its mix of humanism and grotesqueness, of stylized camp and acid realism. The feel is squirmy, malignant, close to David Lynch. It's largely set in Florida and L.A. and bears no traces of nature. In Edward Lachman's startling cinematography and Roshelle Berliner's production design, the world is artificially colored and over-baked.

In "Happiness," Jane Adams played the youngest of three warped sisters, Joy, and she was tremulous and sexy. But Joy is now the more damaged Shirley Henderson, who has a twittery-child voice and a withered demeanor. Lara Flynn Boyle's sultry Helen is now Ally Sheedy, who's brittle and high-strung, hopelessly nihilistic, even in the lap of Hollywood luxury. Cynthia Stevenson's Trish has been elongated into Allison Janney, who seems even more encased in her bubble of obliviousness. Over an al fresco lunch, Trish tells Joy she's getting married again.

(Soundbite of movie, "Life During Wartime")

Ms. SHIRLEY HENDERSON (Actor): (as Joy) But don't you think you're maybe rushing things a bit? I mean, men are - I don't know. And after Bill...

Ms. ALLISON JANNEY (Actor): (as Trish) Bill is totally different.

Ms. HENDERSON: (as Joy) Yeah.

Ms. JANNEY: (as Trish) No. No. The past is the past. Dead. Gone. Wipe my hands. Forgotten. It's got nothing to do with me and the kids. We live in Florida now.

Ms. HENDERSON: (as Joy) I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JANNEY: (as Trish) Now, Harvey on the other hand, well, he's not very attractive. He's older and he's not even that well off. He's divorced. Poor thing had a horrible, horrible wife. But he's Jewish. He's pro-Israel. He did vote for Bush and McCain. But only because of Israel. He knows these people are complete idiots otherwise. So don't worry. Basically, he's just a plain, totally family-oriented kind of guy. A real mensch.

EDELSTEIN: The Israel reference is purposeful. Stars of David, Israeli flags, images of battle in Gaza show up in the background and on TV screens. They're not belabored - only glimpsed. But this is the wartime of Solondz's title, borrowed from a Talking Heads song, but given new meaning. Unacknowledged by these sisters is a world of bloodshed and tribal allegiances.

In "Life During Wartime," there are no male figures with power or stature. But Paul Rubens is shockingly vivid as the ghost of Joy's ex-boyfriend, who committed suicide over her and now reappears either to plead for her affection or abuse her. Ciaran Hinds plays Trish's ex-husband, the pedophile, newly released from prison who's making his way to see his estranged college-age son.

In the last half-hour, Solondz's focus shifts from the adults to Trish's two young children, freckle-faced Dylan Riley Snyder and Emma Hinz. They're the ones who notice the war on TV, the sterility of their environment, the void in the grown-ups' lives. And they weep over the loss of moral authority.

Though they're wildly different, there's a thematic connection between "Life During Wartime" and Steven Spielberg's "Munich," with its protagonist who begs at the end for someone to restore his link to the world of the ancestors, because this world is rotting from within. The children's weeping is the one thread of hope - faint but insistent - in this all-enveloping bad dream, the feel-bad movie of the year. I didn't enjoy this movie. I mean, how can you? But my own faith is rekindled by Todd Solondz, who's found a forum for the chaotic, contradictory impulses that we live with during wartime.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

There are several scenes from "Life During Wartime" at our website: freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Ken Tucker on the new album from Los Lobos. This is FRESH AIR.

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