Quirky irony is the hallmark of director Todd Solondz most accomplished film, as bleak and bizarrely hopeful portrait of American moral “amissness” as any recently committed to film. It’s a ensemble vision of stunted people desperately trying to make sense of themselves and what makes their urges tick without causing too much offense. This, to Solondz, is the funniest kind of effort because it’s doomed — characters are destined to occupy their impulses, not understand them.
Overweight loner Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) has sexual fantasies he confides to straight-laced therapist Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), who pleasantly takes notes. Bill’s wife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a busybody, is one of three sisters including bored poet Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) — “I hate Saturday nights. Everybody wants me. You have no idea.” — and Joy (Jane Adams), single and suitably joyless. Allen obsessively makes obscene calls to Helen (“Are you wet? Is your pussy all wet?”), but he’s as shy as he is graphic; when Helen figures him out and calls back he’s terrified. Hoffman is great in such comic, clumsy-man roles.
There’s also chubby Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who lives down the hall from Allen and remarks on the murder and dismemberment of the doorman because his cut-up remains were slipped into Baggies (“That’s why we can relate to this crime.”) Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) are the woeful parents of the three sisters. Lenny wants out of the marriage, not for a woman but just to be alone. It’s understandable. Nothing tracks as it should. People are puzzle pieces incongruously forced together.
These odd collisions make for a mostly benign anti-happiness until Solondz plays his ace: It turns out family-man Bill is really “Dr. Maplewood,” the neighborhood pedophile. Baker’s handling of this special wretchedness is majestic; it’s the versatile Baker’s most indelible role. Human beings are awkward and unpredictable. Entertainment is occupied by the lies they tell themselves and others. Solondz flirts with caricature but stops short, making his people vivid enough to earn both empathy and scorn.