Thursday Editor’s Pick: Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989)

by on November 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thu Dec 01 at 7:00 at reRun Gastropub Theater [Program & Tix]


reRun Gastropub Theater’s week-long analog-video revival closes with the film that nearly aborted Todd Solondz’s career. Six years before he made Welcome to the Dollhouse (the funniest, most unfailingly honest portrait of grade school’s psychological horrors), Solondz directed and starred in a feature debut satirizing downtown Manhattan’s art scene.


Fear, Anxiety & Depression was re-edited by the studio, released in New York to little fanfare, frequently and unflatteringly compared to Annie Hall, and subsequently disowned by Solondz (who now refuses to discuss it in interviews). Nonetheless, the film has developed a modestly loyal following and a wider reputation for having some very funny sequences despite its unevenness.


Filmmaker Zach Clark (Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!) is the reRun guest-programmer behind “VHS Turkeys.” Here’s what he had to say in his program notes on the series for Alt Screen:


Todd Solondz’ first feature is also his one and only turn as a leading man. It’s too bad, because he has an amazing “Woody Allen’s awkward cousin who dropped out of art-school” thing going for him. And he sings, too! Posing as a send-up of the Lower East Side 80s scene while simultaneously being a product of it, Fear, Anxiety & Depression exhibits a playfulness and refusal to take itself seriously that Solondz has unfortunately been purging from his work for the rest of his career.


One of Solondz’s musical interludes, “Neat Kind of Guy,” with short prelude:



Alison Willmore for IFC News:

These days, it’s almost inconceivable to picture Todd Solondz, the premiere ’90s maestro of deadpan misery, putting himself front and center on screen. For Solondz to subject himself to the same unflinching (if non-judgmental) gaze he’s centered on countless characters, not to mention the humiliations, awkwardness and despair which make up their day-to-day, would seem to require a sense of self-loathing that would make any resulting feature intolerable.[…]

Fear, Anxiety & Depression isn’t a disaster so much as it’s a cultural oddity. If it weren’t for Solondz’ involvement, it’d come across as an unremarkable late ’80s indie made by someone really into Woody Allen. But not only does Solondz appear in almost every scene, he also dabbles in moments of physical comedy and wrote the lyrics for plot song “A Neat Kind of Guy.” It makes watching the movie a unique experience, akin to finding photos of your goth cousin from her ponytailed student council days.



Rob Gonsalves:

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.



A slightly different take on Junk from IMDb commenter “Aw-komon”:

The character of “Junk” (Jane Hamper) is one of the funniest and original female characters ever written. She’s like a younger, nihilistic, rock’n’roll version of certain characters from Woody Allen’s films yet unlike any of them. She’s the mythical anarchist/artist in the guise of a beautiful girl that male artsy types dream of as their muse. Except, they forget that she’s also a woman first. The few scenes featuring “Junk” are absolutely classic, as good as any in Polanski’s “Cul-de-Sac.” Oddly enough, “Junk” is also reminiscent of the Elizabeth Hartman/”Barbara Darling” character in Coppola’s 1966 debut “You’re a Big Boy Now,” which also features a girl infatuated with a guy who is infatuated with a weird, artsy “dream girl,” who takes him for a ride.[…]


A scene with Junk, who’s wary of dating another gay man:



“Aw-komon” adds:

So, even though this is an uneven first effort, it is unmistakably the work of an original comedic mind, an auteur whose films can be recogized in under 2 minutes. Fear, Anxiety & Depression is the real deal in rough form. Much of the annoying stuff is very much intended to be so and is part of a style that was forming itself into what became “Dollhouse” and “Happiness.”



Caryn James for the New York Times:

Ira is the persona adopted by Todd Solondz, the 30-year-old writer, director and star of ”Fear, Anxiety and Depression,” an amiable, uninspired spoof of the notion that agony and art go together… Mr. Solondz, who just a couple of years ago was a student at the New York University Film School, uses his film’s episodic structure to good advantage. As Ira drifts through encounters with his best friend and with assorted girlfriends manque, Mr. Solondz keeps his eye on loopy, revealing details. His friend Jack is a handsome, pretentious artist who uses white paint to write ”This is not white” on a canvas, then calls Ira derivative. […]


Each of the set pieces is clever without being strikingly sharp or original. Mr. Solondz slyly acknowledges his debts to other film makers; Junk works in a copy shop, like the heroine of ”Smithereens,” Susan Seidelman’s own first film about down-and-out downtown. And Sharon’s plaintive love song to ”I, I, I” (her pet name for Ira) echoes ”Suddenly Seymour” from ”Little Shop of Horrors.” But that wry self-awareness is no substitute for the distinctive voice or vision that Mr. Solondz does not yet have. ”Fear, Anxiety and Depression,” which opens today at the Quad Cinema, is the work of a gifted and still glib film maker.


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