Life During Wartime has its moments, but overall I think it is a middling addition to Todd Solondz's catalog and one of the weakest recent entries in the Criterion Collection. This is especially true because, even though the film can conceivably stand on its own, it's not fully appreciated without having seen Solondz's earlier, better film, Happiness (although I also don't think that film has aged very well). This is a sequel of sorts to that film, set about ten years later but starring an entirely different cast in the same roles. This is undoubtedly an interesting idea, especially because the ensembles were so accomplished in both films - it's a treat to see all of these actors' takes on each character and how they differ, both because of the elapsed time and because of their different approach.
Unfortunately, Life During Wartime suffers from a lot of the same afflictions that threaten to overwhelm Happiness but have plagued Solondz's later work. The director's interest in the taboo makes his work interesting in many ways, but his situations have moved from believably outrageous to simply ludicrous. Alison Janney's character here is particularly difficult to buy, but there are whole sections that come off as inartfully constructed intellectual exercises in making the audiences squirm. Even worse, they don't particularly succeed, as scenes like the one in which a thirteen-year-old boy asked his mom what a man does to a boy when he rapes him are so obviously absurd and awkwardly wedged into the film as an obvious plot device that I was left wondering why someone wasn't reigning in Solondz's eccentricities a bit more, rather than being genuinely shocked.
There are, however, some really harrowing and authentic moments in the film. The one that stands out most is the meeting of the pedophile from Happiness with his son, now a college student struggling to move past his father's crimes. Because the scenes with these two characters were easily the most disturbing moments in the earlier film, this meeting has a special significance, and their interaction feels entirely earned and real. This moment was almost enough to redeem the entire movie for me. Ultimately, though, Life During Wartime does not work especially well as a stand alone piece, and while I think a good case could be made for the representation of Solondz in the Collection, I'd much rather see Happiness or his one really great movie, Welcome to the Doll House, as his representative work.