After a stint of experimental flops – 2001′s STORYTELLING and PALINDROMES in 2004 – writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest film, LIFE DURING WARTIME, marks a return to the familiar world of HAPPINESS, his successful 1998 follow up to his break out film WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. HAPPINESS revolves around a family of three sisters: Helen, a successful, jaded writer, Trish, a Mrs. Cleaver type in pleated khakis and Joy, a frizzy-haired, soft-spoken, flower child screw up. Perversion and pedophilia, two of Solondz’s all-time favorite themes, are hard at work here, whether it’s Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s character jerking off to calls to random women in the phone book or Trish’s husband Bill, the unsuspecting nebbish (Dylan Baker) who rapes his son’s friend from little league.

LIFE DURING WARTIME picks up 12 years later in 2010, with Bill (played now by a very scary Ciaran Hinds) just getting out of jail. Everything is hunky dory with Trish (Allison Janney), who has just fallen in love and freely doles out relationship advice to Joy (Shirley Henderson), who’s having problems with her husband, a rehabilitated ex-con falling back into drugs and past perversions of a similar nature to Hoffman’s character. Joy is also visited by her dead boyfriend (Paul Reubens), the John Lovitz character from HAPPINESS, who is at first pathetically lonesome for her and then cursing her belligerently, both of which she endures with a patience born of her own desperation and self depreciation.

Aside from the fact that this set up too closely mirrors Solondz’s mildly interesting effort in PALINDROMES to play the same character with multiple actors, LIFE DURING WARTIME simply lacks the vitality of HAPPINESS and comes off instead as a lifeless copycat. Where HAPPINESS succeeds at the potential cliche of playing out unspoken perversions with overt stereotypes, LIFE DURING WARTIME can’t seem to decide whether it wants to mimic that or be a serious drama. So we get both, which makes for pacing so unbalanced we lose hold of what Solondz is trying to do. But just what is he trying to do? What is the point of showing these characters again? Sadly, the truth is that they’e just not as interesting as they were 12 years ago.