Not every great director makes a great debut. For some it takes a couple of tries. Stanley Kubrick had ‘Fear & Desire’ AND ‘Killers Kiss’ (sorry, but that movie isn’t very good. just admit it. I know its Kubrick, but just admit it). And not every great director owns up to everything they’ve done either (just look at David Lynch and ‘Dune’). Todd Solondz’ feature film debut; ‘Fear Anxiety & Depression’, a Woody Allen-esque comedy starring Solondz himself, fits the criteria of both: A failed debut that he not only disowns, but supposedly wont talk about in interviews. In fact, when I walked past Todd Solondz in 2006 and told him i owned a copy of ‘Fear, Anxiety & Depression’ he covered his face as if he were embarrassed and said: “Oh god, WHY?” (True story) But as the years go on, Solondz’ feature debut has become one of the last works to truly be called “rare”. The VHS is out of print, and there isn’t even a bootleg or multi-region copy of it on DVD. At no fault of Todd Solondz, many people were kinda led to believe that ‘Welcome To The Dollhouse’ (1996) was his directorial debut in the same way many some people thought ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ was Jim Jarmusch’s directorial debut for years (after ‘Fear, Anxiety & Depression’ was released he stopped directing and became an ESL teacher for adults). Even indie gems without a real DVD release like Hal Hartley’s ‘Trust’ and Tom Noonan’s ‘What Happened Was…’ can be watched instantly on Netflix. There aren’t too many movies in my collection that I consider to be a “prized possession” outside of my ‘Love Streams’ VHS and the original DVD box set of ‘Eraserhead’ that you had to buy off of David Lynch’s website back in the day. But ‘Fear Anxiety & Depression is one of them. Its easy for a low budget studio screwball comedy to get swallowed up and forgotten about in an intimidating year like 1989. It was the year when American indie heavyweights like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee & a pre-Good Will Hunting Gus Van Sant shared the spotlight with the likes of Tim Burton (who’s revamping of the Batman franchise still influences the Batman movies of today) as well as international directors like John Woo & Michael Haneke. 1989 was also the year of some very important directorial debuts: Michael Haneke (‘The Seventh Continent’), Hal Hartley (‘Unbelievable Truth’), Steven Soderbergh (‘Sex, Lies & Videotape’) and Wendall B. Harris (‘Chameleon Street’), Cult films (with plenty of dark humor) like; ‘Heatthers’, ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’, ‘Society’, ‘The Cook, The Thief, The Wife & His Lover’ & ‘Parents’, blockbuster sequels (‘Back To The Future’, ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’) and more independent films getting mainstream recognition and acclaim (‘Do The Right Thing’, ‘Mystery Train’ & ‘Sex, Lies & Videotape’). What was also important about 1989 was that it paved the way for new, young independent American filmmakers of the 90’s like; Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and many many more.
‘Fear, Anxiety & Depression’ is essentially ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Annie Hall’ meets the screwball comedy styling of ‘Weekend At Bernies’. That’s not the most flattering description but its also not the greatest movie in the world either. But its also not as bad as the people who’ve seen it make it out to be. And the more Solondz distances himself from this movie the more curious people get about it.
Fear anxiety & depression is the story of “Ira” – a struggling (and somewhat pretentious) playwright looking for romance in New York City. Much like Woody Allen does in his own movies when he plays the main character, Ira/Solondz moves through a few different women through the course of the film. The women in his life are: “Sharon” – Ira’s strange yet loving girlfriend who he’s really only with out of convenience. Next is “Junk” – a performance artist who kinda symbolizes pretentious modern New York City art. Ira is head over heels for Junk but she cant stand him. Last is “Janice” – a wholesome, nice waitress/struggling actress who use to date Ira’s best friend “Jack” – a modern artist who ends up dating Junk. As you can tell from the description of these characters this film is about more than just romance and relationships in New York City. Its also about struggling artists and trying to “make it big” at what you do. This doesn’t sound like the worst movie in the world, but the attempts at humor are SO screwball and cheesy at times that it makes you wanna cringe and look away (especially knowing what Solondz went on to direct in the 90’s and today). I know that’s only one real reason as to why the movie isn’t great (although Solondz’ attempt at trying to be like Woody Allen is kinda embarrassing too) but if you’ve actually seen this you’d understand. The films positive aspects are the few moments of dark humor and Stanley Tucci’s early performance as one of Ira’s rival playwrights. But outside of those few moments of dark humor and the bleak (yet comedic) outlook on life, the Todd Solondz responsible for stuff like ‘Happiness’ and ‘Welcome To The Dollhouse’ hadn’t developed yet. In Solondz’ defense this was a studio film that he had no control over as far as editing went. Apparently once shooting wrapped he had nothing to do with the cutting of the film. When ‘Life During Wartime’ came out a few years back people made this big deal about how it was Solondz’ first movie without pedophilia, rape or all the other dark subjects his films are known for. But true Solondz fans who’ve seen his first film know that really isn’t the case at all. This isn’t exactly a “no-wave” film as that scene had died out in NYC before the late 80’s, but there’s still traces of it in ‘Fear, Anxiety & Depression’ (the films east/west village setting, the references to modern art and performance art, etc). And outside of Woody Allen, Solondz also drew clear inspiration from other works like ‘Liquid Sky’ and Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’ and ‘King Of Comedy’ (there’s even a scene when Ira is being chased by Sharon that bares a strange similarity to the scene in ‘King Of Comedy’ when Jerry Lewis is being chased by Sandra Bernhard).
As unappealing as this movie may seem to some, you have to admit that it does sound a bit intriguing. If you’re a diehard fan of Todd Solondz like I am, this is a must-see.