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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (1989)

When it comes to dark comedies, none are darker then the films of Todd Solondz. His movies are very funny and very depressing. He tackles highly controversial, inflammatory topics like child molestation, rape, abortion, murder, and suburban depression. Many critics have accused him of being misanthropic and nihilistic, a man mocking the horrible lives of his miserable characters. Yet I consider Solondz to be a hugely humanistic filmmaker, one who seeks to find something sympathetic in even the most despicable of characters. His movies most definitely aren't for everyone. After his few breakthroughs, it seems he always endeavored to isolate those who enjoyed them. And, hey, what says "Merry Christmas!" like suicidal depression, sexual depravity, and upper middle-class neurosis and depression?

1. Fear, Anxiety & Depression

Todd Solondz broke on to the indie film scene in 1995 with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a controversial film that earned a lot of critical praise and cemented Solondz as an up-and-coming talent in the film world. It was as good a debut as any struggling filmmaker could ask for. Except “Welcome to the Dollhouse” wasn’t Todd Solondz’ first movie. His feature debut came much earlier in 1989 with the cheerfully entitled “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” The film was barely released and apathetically received by the few who saw it. Solondz was reportedly locked out of the editing room and he has disowned the final product, refusing to discuss it in interviews. It was such a negative experience for the director that he nearly swore off film-making all together. The movie has never been released on anything but a washed-out VHS tape. A DVD or Blu-Ray release is incredibly unlikely. Is “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” a secret origin worthy of Solondz’ career or is it the justifiably buried blunder he considers it to be?

The film follows Ira Ellis, a stage writer struggling to break into the art scene of 1980s New York. His boss at his day job berates him with profanity. His parents are obnoxious. He sinks all his money into a pretentious stage show that tanks critically and financially. His best friend, a painter with similarly rotten luck, secretly hates Ira’s plays. Ira dumps his incredibly neurotic and clingy girlfriend for a succession of other women, like an emotionally distant performance artist and his best friend’s tumultuous ex. Each of them are crazy in their own way and similarly inspire both utter despair and burst of creativity in Ira. And none of the above resolve his fear, his anxiety or his depression.

After finally seeing “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” I’m quite surprised to see that Solondz has renounced it so completely. The film is, in many ways, very similar to his later, more critically accepted work. Both concern a highly neurotic protagonist struggling to find happiness in a world that does nothing but heap shit on him. The main character is deeply flawed, broken in a very human way. He inspires sympathy because of his blatant imperfections. Yet he’s frequently selfish and narrow-minded, so much that the audience questions whether they want to relate to this guy. The world around him is deeply unsympathetic to his pain. Romance does nothing but complicate things further. The movie ends on a bitingly comic moment, wrapping a dark moment in the characters’ life up with a sardonic bow. The director’s first film shows that his interests have remain fairly consistent throughout his entire career.

Yet “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” is very different from the director’s later movies in several important ways. It’s more blatantly comedic. Solondz’ later films plum the depths of misery for dark comedy but also as an exploration of the human condition. “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” meanwhile, has wackier gags and broader characters. Ira’s first play, “Despair,” is a facile parody of pretentious stage plays, one that’s barely believable. After that play fails, Ira attempts to hang himself. That scene, in a later Solondz film, would be played much straighter. Instead, here, it’s a wacky – if depressing – sight gag. While lost in self-adsorbed thought, Ira’s girlfriend is attacked, and possibly raped, by a pair of street thugs. This goes unnoticed by Ira. Later, another date is also interrupted by a violent assault from some random crooks. A serious conversation between two characters is scored to a homeless man urinating in the background. The director’s debt to Woody Allen is also evident in the way the film focuses on Ira’s sex life. His failed relationships, and lousy taste in mates, are played more for goofy laughs then deeper drama. The Allen influence shows in the ending too, when Iris premieres a successful play based on an idealized version of his own life. These differences makes the film a less rewarding watch then the director’s better, later work, though it's about equally amusing.

Another really big difference is that Mr. Solondz steps in front of in “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” In another move perhaps inspired by Woody Allen, Todd did triple duty on his debut, writing, directing, and starring. Solondz is about as assuming a leading man as you could ask for. His frizzy hair, beady eyes, coke-bottle glasses, constantly-barred buck teeth and nasally voice do not make for movie star good looks. As an actor, Solondz gives an all right performance. He certainly embodies the role and has no problem playing up the character’s negative traits. He is weirdly watchable for such an odd presence, managing to carry an at-times shaky film. However, like the movie itself, Solondz is too inconsistent to be fully satisfying. When the script plays up the characters’ negative attributes, Solondz is too unlikable. And not in a human, relatable way. Just in a way that’s kind of irritating.

A fairly decent supporting cast holds up Solondz’ uneven lead. Max Cantor is good as Ira’s best friend who secretly loathes his stage plays. Cantor’s sometimes mean-spirited actions come from a place of vulnerability and he remains somewhat likable even during his darkest moments. Jill Wisoff has a tough part as Sharon, Ira’s emotionally unstable girlfriend. She has to be irritating enough that you can imagine Ira would want to leave her but without becoming a cartoon character. Sharon is still cartoonish but Wisoff is funny, manic, and charismatic. Alexandra Fersten as Janice, Jack’s girlfriend, gives probably the most emotionally human performance in the film. Her actions seem rooted in reason and understanding. The only thing resembling a real name actor in the cast is Stanley Tucci as a hated former schoolmate of Ira that has now found success in off-Broadway theater. Tucci’s innate likable help stabilizes another character that is broadly written.

Another purpose of “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” is to satirize the art scene of eighties New York. Ellis’ own plays are obvious and cheesy but rooted in an older tradition of college pretensions. Instead, it’s the other parts of the film that pokes fun at the world of high-strung performance art. The characters visit a bar where a mock-autopsy is performed and a wall of monitors reflect the faces in the crowd. The girl Ira spends half of the movie chasing is an unbelievable artist type nicknamed “Junk.” During one of her performances, she screams profanity at the crowd and pantomimes taking a bowel movement before vomiting on everyone. She and Jack, after meeting up, spend some time mocking how “fake” New York is now while simultaneously being enamored of trendy new restaurants. The movie’s biggest indictment of the art world comes when Tucci’s character, who is completely clueless about theater, has huge success while someone like Ira, who is genuinely passionate about the art if misguided, suffers in obscurity. None of it is cutting edge, and none of the satire truly works, but Solondz makes his point. (That point, probably, being that he really hates hipsters.)

The movie’s focus on relationships is less satisfying. First off, it’s a bit unbelievable that someone as homely and neurotic as Ira Ellis could score, or nearly score, with some of the women in this film. His relationship with Sharon would have been much sadder in a later Solondz movie. She’s desperately in love with him, building her entire life around a man that is clearly not invested in her. After he dumps her, she tries to kill herself, literally swallowing an entire bottle of pills. She survives but her recovery is played strictly for laughs. That character’s reappearance in the last act is unlikely for multiple reasons. First off, the two meeting again is an example of lazy screenwriting. Secondly, her personality changing so drastically in such a short amount of time strains plausibility. And there’s the matter of Junk. The character is so ridiculous, actress Jane Hamper speaking in a robotic monotone. She treats Ira terribly, standing him up twice and barely acknowledging him when they talk. I guess its certainly possible that a schmuck like Ira could be that into a girl just because she’s pretty. But I can’t imagine him putting up with her aggravating eccentricities for as long as he does. The movie throws one more relationship with Ira, in the form of a grieving Janice, who seeks comfort in the arms of her ex-boyfriend’s best friend. This is probably the most believable – and funniest – romance in the film, as the movie sharply reflects the massive differences in the two people’s personality. Disappointingly, it’s resolved mostly off-screen. If anything, the script proves that Solondz did not have a future in romantic comedies.

You know what’s another weird thing about “Fear, Anxiety & Depression?” It’s practically a musical. Three time the movie devotes screen time to montages scored to goofy songs penned for the film and sung in-character by the cast. The weirdest part of this? Most of the songs are pretty good. Sharon’s romantic ode to Ira, which plays over one of the couple’s awkward dates, nicely shows how differently the two think of the relationship. It’s sickening sweet but intentionally so. Even better is Ira’s own romantic ode to Junk. He naively positions himself as a “neat sort of guy,” a sentiment unlikely to impress the hyper-hip girl. The date it plays over, which has the dorky Ira trying on thrift shop clothes and snorting cocaine for the first time, flips the situation around, showing the man to be as lame and unrealistic as his ex-girlfriend. The best use of music comes when Janice gets a part in a jukebox musical revival. She sings a flighty love song, performing very well, when Jack walks in. She never totally breaks character, even if her composure starts to slip. This is an important character moment for Jack too, as his current date mocks Janine’s lovely performance, making him realize this is not a person he wants to be involve with. Solondz would ironically incorporate upbeat pop music into many of his future films and that habit undeniably started here.

“Fear, Anxiety & Depression” is flawed and deeply unpolished. It’s clearly the effort of a first time filmmaker. However, the movie is also nowhere near as bad as its reputation implies. It's fascinating to a fan of the director, as you can clearly see his obsessions and reoccurring interests already in place. The movie is even funny, in ways similar to and different from the pitch black cringe comedies Solondz would eventually find fame with. The movie is tricky to track down – It’s not even on YouTube – and will probably only be of interest to fans of the director. The final product is solid enough that I wish an official DVD release did exist, if just to give the movie a cleaned-up transfer. The VHS is dark and scratchy. I doubt this will change Todd’s mind but I suggest his debut is worth a second look and further discussion. [Grade: B-]

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