It’s unlikely, at 52 years old and more than 20 years into his career, that Todd Solondz is going to change. He’s said as much himself, at least in the words of a minor character in Palindromes: “People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes.” But they can make slight alterations. As he reaches the middle of his life, cinema’s arguable darkest comic filmmaker—whose films are so bleak, so cynical, so unflinching about modern American mediocrity they rarely produce genuine laughs—has made a film that at least ditches the usual meek, easily-bullied protagonist of most of his films.
Meet Abe (a wonderfully game Jordan Gelber), a mid-30s, porcine loser who lives with his parents, one (Mia Farrow) whom he ignores, the other (Christopher Walken), who is also his reluctant employer. He collects toys and he drives a ridiculous yellow hummer. Of these deficits he is loudly and energetically unaware: Impatient and dickish when he wants something, he is also the first Solondz lead to not only ask someone out, but to do so in the first scene. Unfortunately, that woman turns out to be Miranda (Selma Blair), who historically would have been the Solondz protagonist: mousy, depressed and so hopped up on antidepressants she can barely communicate. The assertive Abe essentially tricks her into a date, and after their first kiss she earnestly crows, “Oh my god, it wasn’t horrible.”
That line is typical Solondz, but this relationship doesn’t have the typical Solondz one-note toxicity. Instead they develop a strange symbiotic warmth, one that survives and grows even as Abe increasingly succumbs to fantasies (including being hit on by a cougar receptionist) and, of course, the typically sadistic plot turns of his filmmaker’s script. Solondz is still Solondz, and sometimes hilariously so: Shots of Toys “R” Us, which Abe frequents with the logo blurred, are reminiscent of the bold red block used to completely obscure the MPAA-disapproving sex scene (with Blair) in Storytelling—an amusing fuck-you to the authorities. Less witty is the “ironic” use of vapidly optimistic pop music (“Now is the time to reach for the sky!”), an easy running gag-type Solondz should have ditched at least two films ago, if not five.