The Films of Todd Solondz
Fear Anxiety and Depression (June 28/16)
It's ultimately not difficult to see why Todd Solondz has disowned his first film, Fear Anxiety and Depression, as the project (and that's just what it feels like: a school project) comes off as a directionless and mostly incompetent attempt to ape the feel of a Woody Allen picture - with, naturally, the end result an often interminable effort that boasts few, if any, positive attributes. The movie casts Solondz as Ira Ellis, a neurotic New Yorker as he endeavors to launch his fledgling career as a playwright - with the movie, for the most part, detailing Ira's encounters with a whole host of often unreasonably offbeat figures (including Stanley Tucci's Donny and Jane Hamper's Junk). Solondz's episodic modus operandi essentially ensures that Fear Anxiety and Depression is lacking in anything resembling forward momentum, with the writer/director's inability to offer up even a single compelling character certainly exacerbating the stagnant atmosphere. This is especially true of Solondz's flat-out disastrous turn as the wholly unlikable protagonist, as the filmmaker, who smartly hasn't acted since, delivers a smug, grating performance that grows more and more problematic as time progresses (ie the viewer is simply unable to work up an ounce of interest in or sympathy for Ira's antics). And although the movie does benefit from its admittedly strong visuals and use of New York City locations, Fear Anxiety and Depression is predominantly an endless slog that's remarkable only in that it didn't spell the end of Solondz's nascent career.
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Welcome to the Dollhouse details the trials and tribulations of awkward middle-schooler Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), with the episodic narrative following Dawn as she must contend with a verbally abusive bully (Brendan Sexton III's Brandon), an apathetic mother (Angela Pietropinto) and father (Bill Buell), and an older, hunky crush (Eric Mabius' Steve). It's clear immediately that Welcome to the Dollhouse marks a substantial (and obvious) improvement over filmmaker Todd Solondz's underwhelming debut, Fear Anxiety and Depression, as the movie boasts as vivid and compelling a protagonist as one could envision in the guise of Matarazzo's Dawn Wiener - with the character's intensely sympathetic nature heightened by Matarazzo's stellar performance. There is, as such, little doubt that the film succeeds mostly on the basis of Matarazzo's top-notch work here, with Solondz's decidedly episodic sensibilities paving the way for a narrative that's somewhat hit and miss (although it's more the former than the latter). Solondz's infamous penchant for shock ultimately can't diminish what is, for the most part, a absorbing coming-of-age story, as the storyline boasts a number of trenchant observations about young adulthood and high school life to which most viewers will relate. The superb supporting cast goes a long way towards perpetuating the consistently watchable atmosphere, and it's clear, in the end, that Welcome to the Dollhouse, erratically paced as it may be, stands as a rather impressive effort from a director whose output is rather uneven (to put it mildly).
Palindromes & Life During Wartime
Click here and here for reviews.
Dark Horse (July 13/13)
A typically ineffective effort from Todd Solondz, Dark Horse follows Jordan Gelber's Abe, a thirtysomething slacker who still lives with his parents, as he aggressively pursues Selma Blair's emotionally-damaged Miranda. There's little doubt that Dark Horse fares best in its opening stretch, as writer/director Solondz has infused the film with a low-key character-study vibe that is, for the most part, awfully difficult to resist - with the watchable vibe heightened by Gelber's impressively convincing turn as the film's unlikable protagonist (ie one doesn't typically encounter a central character this obnoxious). Solondz's decision to, in the movie's early stages, tone down his trademarked quirk certainly plays a key role in Dark Horse's initial success, although, unfortunately, the filmmaker can't quite resist throwing in a few eye-rollingly distracting elements (eg the Toys "R" Us logo is bafflingly blurred out). Alas, Solondz's refusal (or inability) to tell a simple, straight-forward story grows more and more problematic as the movie progresses - as Solondz blurs the line between reality and Abe's fantasies to an increasingly distressing degree. It ultimately becomes difficult to comfortably figure out what's actually happening and what's merely in Abe's mind, which, when coupled with the narrative's almost criminal lack of momentum, slowly-but-surely transforms Dark Horse into an excessively irrelevant piece of work.
Wiener-Dog follows the title character as he cycles through a quartet of stories involving morose characters, including an unhappy couple (Tracy Letts' Danny and Julie Delpy's Dina), an unhappy film professor (Danny DeVito's Dave Schmerz), and an unhappy senior citizen (Ellen Burstyn's Nana). It's perhaps not surprising to note that filmmaker Todd Solondz takes an aggressively misanthropic approach to his characters, with the movie, which falls right in line with the writer/director's cynical, pessimistic body of work, adopting a consistently (and thoroughly) despondent feel that's reflected in most of its attributes. There is, as such, little doubt that Wiener-Dog can be awfully difficult to sit through at times, and yet it's just as clear that the movie does boast a number of unexpectedly engrossing stretches - with the best and most cogent example of this the entirety of DeVito's emotional subplot. (It's likely not hyperbole to suggest that DeVito delivers the performance of his career here.) The film is likewise peppered with a handful of impressively captivating sequences (eg Kieran Culkin's Brandon attempts to tell his mentally-handicapped sibling their father has died), while the movie's final story, revolving around Burstyn's thoroughly hateful figure, packs a far greater emotional punch than one could've ever anticipated. (This is especially true of the tale's gut-punch of a conclusion.) Solondz ultimately can't resist ending the picture with a serious middle-finger to the viewer, as Wiener-Dog ends on an eye-rollingly (and needlessly) graphic note that obliterates its previously-established positive vibes - which, in turn, ensures that the movie finally comes off as yet another misfire from a filmmaker who prizes shock value over authenticity and genuine emotion.