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Todd Solondz Follows 'Happiness' with the Post-9/11 Confusion of 'Life During Wartime'

Todd Solondz celebrates Life During Wartime, coming to the Red Vic next week, with stars Shirley Henderson (left) and Charlotte Rampling.

Todd Solondz can’t wait to get to Chicago, the next stop on the promotional tour for his challenging new drama, Life During Wartime.

Unfamiliar with Mark Twain’s appraisal of the City by the Bay's seasonal chill factor – “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco” – Solondz, a New Jersey native, craves heat and humidity. But lounging in a climate-controlled suite at the Prescott Hotel, the 49-year-old director seems to have found his comfort zone.

Comfort is a feeling Solondz rarely affords audiences in movies like Happiness (1998), his uncompromising portrait of suburban malaise and the depravity it fosters, and Wartime, a sort-of sequel featuring the same characters but an all-new cast. Yet the director’s stories are not without empathy, even for characters like Bill, the sexual predator played in the original by Dylan Baker and now by Ciarán Hinds, who seems beyond redemption.

“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 our capacity for cruelty, and I’m exploring it through this prism of forgiving and forgetting. You can have parents whose child is raped and murdered, and if they’re of a certain religious orientation, they might be inclined to forgive. Other parents, they might want nothing but vengeance. To me, they’re both valid responses.”

Solondz doesn’t think of Wartime as a sequel – he prefers to call it a reimagining – and says he never planned to revisit the wounded world of Happiness, but that he found himself writing the new movie’s opening scene and felt the urge to press on.

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

To illustrate those changes, Solondz recruited different actors, hoping their unique interpretations of his characters would give his follow-up a new look and feel. He cites Paul Reubens, the actor best known for playing Pee-wee Herman – seen in Wartime as Andy, a ghostly suicide victim still obsessed with the unrequited love of his life – as a prime example.

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

“Who would have imagined he was capable of such dramatic work? 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 arrives at the Red Vic on Tuesday, Nov. 16. For tickets and showtimes, click here.