I just want us to be friends.
But…you don’t ever want to see me again.
Or talk to you.
— Dialogue from the movie
Todd Solondz is pretty well-represented on DVD — from his alleged debut Welcome to the Dollhouse to his most recent effort Life During Wartime. The real completist, however, must seek out Solondz’ true first feature — not Dollhouse, as is often erroneously reported, but 1989’s Fear, Anxiety and Depression. This very-hard-to-find film (put out by MCEG/Virgin Video, and long out of print), which Solondz has suppressed and reportedly won’t discuss in interviews, has the added benefit of Solondz’ presence as its star as well as writer/director. Question is: Does it stack up to his later films? Ummm … yes and no. I’m glad I bought it, I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad Solondz moved beyond it.
Solondz plays Ira Ellis, a wimpy aspiring playwright who worships (and rips off) Samuel Beckett. How is Solondz as an actor? Let’s just say I’m also glad Solondz hasn’t followed in Quentin Tarantino’s footsteps and pursued acting (though he had a wordless cameo in As Good As It Gets). He’s not bad, but his acting as well as his writing here smack too much of Woody Allen. Here you have a bespectacled nerd with a mop of unruly hair, who agonizes over artistic integrity while chasing inaccessible women and eluding too-accessible women …. Yep, FAD is a Woody wannabe, something you could hardly say about Solondz’ other two films. It’s often a funny and quirky Woody wannabe, with flashes of the originality to be discovered later on in his career, but fans of Dollhouse and Happiness would do well to dial down their expectations a couple of notches. There’s nothing here to match the quiet outrageousness of the mature Solondz.
The movie is funny in part because of the glimpse it gives of the dying ’80s. New Wave and the Warhol art scene had pretty much pointed their toes up by the late ’80s, and FAD is full of New York artsy types who somehow haven’t gotten the newsletter. For example, Ira becomes smitten with a downtown performance artist named Junk (Jane Hamper), who looks like a cross between the Bride of Frankenstein and Boy George. Junk seems to have seen Liquid Sky at an impressionable age and never gotten over it; she’s all nihilistic pose, no humanity visible under her hipstress shell. There is a bit of a subtext working throughout the movie: Solondz shows how misfits and geeks from all over come to New York and find some sort of acceptance by recreating themselves as artists — indeed, most of the characters actually refer to themselves as artists, apparently not knowing that that’s for others to judge.
The misfits and geeks also harbor dreams of fame or at least recognition, and the painful comedy here is that there isn’t a scrap of talent among them. Ira’s friend Jack (Max Cantor) fancies himself a cutting-edge painter in the mold of Schnabel or Basquiat (his idea of art is gluing a hammer to a canvas); Jack’s girlfriend Janice (Alexandra Gersten) considers herself “a serious actress” but isn’t above taking a gig as a “Showtuner” singing in a shopping mall; the hapless Sharon (Jill Wisoff), who’s crazy in love with Ira, seems like a pathetic hanger-on but eventually finds an ironic kind of success. Meanwhile, Ira bounces from woman to woman and job to job, trying to get his next play written and maintain a little sanity as a starving artist.
FAD is both funny and sad, because these people are delusional; they have ego but no talent, and nobody has had the heart to tell them so. So there they all are in the insular New York art scene, putting on plays and shows and exhibitions for each other, and being encouraged to remain clichéd and pretentious. The movie itself may be clichéd (Woody has worked this turf pretty well), but it’s not pretentious; Solondz has a light touch, and, as with his other films, he even gives us a few happy-face songs as counterpoint to the misery. Working with capable cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, Solondz opts for many austere, static, almost Kubrickian shots — probably this movie’s most readily identifiable link to his others.
One other reason to check out Fear, Anxiety and Depression is a terrific turn by Stanley Tucci, who is sometimes given second billing in web info on the film; he really only has a handful of scenes, but as Donny, a high-school pal of Ira’s who has made it big in recording, Tucci is visibly thrilled to break out of the usual gangster roles that were his bread and butter at the time. Everyone else in the cast (with the exception of Jill Wisoff, whose Sharon is a touching creation; Wisoff would later compose the score for Dollhouse) does pretty much what the scene requires and no more; Tucci brings zip and spark to his scenes — he’s as outgoing here as he was reserved in Murder One or Big Night. We eventually saw more of him, of course; we never saw more of anyone else in the film except for Solondz (who was so traumatized by the experience that he fled filmmaking for years and took up teaching), and that only adds to the movie’s layer of sadness. What became of Alexandra Gersten? Did she move back to her hometown, as her character does? Did everyone in the cast try and fail to build a career on this movie? Why did Tucci make it while they didn’t?
Part of the answer is in Tucci’s stand-out performance, of course; part of it is in Solondz’ own biography — he actually did give up for a long time, but then got a second chance with Dollhouse. I, for one, am happy to have him back. Here’s hoping he stays for good this time.