Few people have ever had it as hard in life as the characters in the films of Todd Solondz. Maybe that’s not entirely fair; the viewers of his films have to witness their depressing lives, the results of the filmmaker’s unrivalled misanthropy – perhaps we have it worse after all.
The writer/director of such troubling, cringe-inducing works as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and their fused sequel Life During Wartime returns to dissect the life of another American convinced that he is something more than he is.
Jordan Gelber plays Abe, an enormous man-child still living with his parents well into his 30s. Despite his insistence that nepotism played no role (and he says the word “nepotism” with the pride of a man who loves using one of the few big words he knows), he works for his father’s company and does not put in the effort required of him. Abe collects dozens of still-boxed action figures and drives a bumblebee-yellow hummer the size of a small house. Yet despite all his problems he is convinced he is a “dark horse”, and will hit his stride yet.
This is a Todd Solondz movie, so no, he won’t.
From Abe’s perspective at least, things begin to look up when he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a self-harming, over-medicated young woman who could not be more wrong for him. But she’s willing to talk to him (just about), and that’s farther than he’s managed to get before.
Abe’s romantic odyssey is riddled with moments of extreme awkwardness, black humour and enough cringe-inducing encounters to warp the shape of your spine.
In Abe, Solondz has found one of his greatest societal rejects, revealing the man-child to be as tragic (and inevitable) a part of modern life as his dial-up masturbators and serial paedophiles. Gelber’s performance is heartbreaking, depicting the character’s self-delusion and false confidence with worrying ease.
But the focus on Abe and his increasingly bizarre fantasies takes away from a superb supporting cast who are all under-utilised. An exhausted Christopher Walken barely makes a mark as Abe’s dad. Mia Farrow plays the concerned mother, but there was surely more material Solondz could have provided her with. Justin Bartha briefly steps in as Abe’s superbly successful younger brother – he’s the perfect foil for Abe but the two never get a properly meaty scene together.
Solondz has taken his brilliant new creation for a test-drive in an unsuitable vehicle, which results in this relatively short film feeling exhaustingly long. Yet that exhaustion never pays off with the sort of agonising moment of brutal discomfort fans of Happiness and other Solondz films will be hoping for.
It’s definitely the director’s handiwork, but newcomers would be best delving into Dollhouse or Happiness first. This is a good ways off his finest hour.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)