Francisco Román
Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson star in "Life During Wartime."

LIFE DURING WARTIME — ★★ — Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney; not rated, probable R (profanity, sex, vulgarity, slurs, brief nudity); Broadway Centre

"Life During Wartime" is actually a sequel to "Happiness," the deceptively titled and divisive 1998 film that dared to broach subjects as taboo as pedophilia.

But this follow-up is not nearly as shocking and provocative as the earlier film. And it's not nearly as effective.

In fact, tackling this material again after a dozen year seems like overkill and desperation on the part of its filmmaker, screenwriter/director Todd Solondz, who hasn't had even a critical hit in years.

Also, there's a clinical, detached feel to the film, especially in terms of the performances. This coldness and aloofness only makes it more off-putting.

Irish character actor Ciaran Hinds assumes the role originated by Dylan Baker — that of convicted pedophile Bill Maplewood. He's just been released from prison, having served time for his crimes.

He's nervous about visiting his family, but as it turns out, his ex-wife, Trish (Allison Janney), has moved to Florida and has started a relationship with an older man, Harvey (Michael Lerner).

Her younger sister, Joy (Shirley Henderson), is now married to Allen (Michael K. Williams) but is unhappy and comes to Trish for advice.

Henderson and Janney appear to be mimicking the mannerisms of the actresses who played their roles first, Jane Adams and Cynthia Stevenson, respectively.

And African-American actor Williams (HBO's "The Wire") assumes Phillip Seymour Hoffman's role. His character isn't in the movie much, but he seems very uncomfortable playing this person.

(An even more bizarre bit has Paul Reubens playing Joy's ex, Andy Kornbluth, who killed himself in the first film. The character appears here as a spectral annoyance.)

The only story line that's remotely effective here is the one featuring Hinds. But he deserves a better movie — or at least a more rewarding part to play in it.

"Life During Wartime" is not rated but would probably receive an R for strong sexual profanity, simulated sex and other sexual contact (some of it overheard), crude sexual references and other sexually suggestive language (slang), derogatory language and slurs (some based on sexual orientation), and brief female nudity. Running time: 98 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com