It’s all well and good for Step Up Revolution to open with exuberant dancing, but when you’re witnessing the opening moments of a film by the current reigning master of American indie miserablism, Todd Solondz, and a happy bride and groom at their own reception are in the process of freaking one another on the dance floor while hip-hop blasts from the soundtrack, you know something horrible is coming. In this next chapter of Solondz’s ongoing excavation of dreary suburban despair, it begins with desperately nerdist dating rituals, moves on to Hepatitis B and only gets worse from there.
Along the way we’re subjected to pitiable sadness, uncomfortably funny gloom, shocking cruelty and then, well, you can see where this is going even if you aren’t the kind of person who considers tortured tween Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse your personal avatar when you’re having a terrible, no good, very bad day.
Back to that exuberant dancing. It’s the kind that alienates envious non-dancer Abe (Jordan Gelber), and he’s quick to point it out to Selma Blair, who plays someone officially billed as “Miranda (formerly ‘Vi’),” a variation on the character she played in Solondz’s earlier film, Storytelling. Lost in her own heavily medicated depression, she barely registers a response to Abe’s anti-dance defensiveness. In Solondz World, this is how romance begins: deadpan, one-sided, resigned and last-chance.
It’s as though the director has taken every detail of the Judd Apatow school of man-child losers and reclaimed them for real life, as if to remind audiences what an actual 40-year-old virgin looks like. Abe is obnoxious, an obsessive collector of action figures who lives at home and who exists in a delusional state of self-aggrandizement that’s inversely proportional to his actual accomplishments. He reflexively exaggerates every time he opens his mouth (he’s “200%” committed or “1,000%” sincere, depending on the circumstance, and when Miranda kisses him for the first time and declares it not “horrible,” his take-away is that he’s a very good kisser). Squandering every privilege and opportunity he’s been given by his comfortably middle-class upbringing, yet possibly ruined at a young age by his cold father’s (Christopher Walken) early label of “Dark Horse,” he hurls a puffed-up form of fake congeniality at strangers he’s determined to impress. Then, on a dime, he’s launching rage-filled invective at his family and co-workers, blaming everyone else for his problems. If you’ve seen any other Solondz movie, even one, you’ll recognize him as part of an ever-growing community of same-universe saddos who’ll never escape their own prisons.
Unlike Apatow, who generously allows his creations the ability to engage in a kind of comedic talk-therapy, a workable path to a better life, Solondz can’t bring himself to indulge in anything resembling optimism. Barring some earth-shaking intervention, you know what's going to happen to that horribly stunted real-life guy you know? Nothing, that's what. He’s stuck, with no one-liners or the perfectly timed, open-hearted epiphany that’ll make Catherine Keener fall in love with him and turn the world into a groovy “Let the Sunshine In”-fueled dance number.
Solondz only opens his pitch-black closet a sliver during Abe’s series of dreams about a sweet-natured co-worker, Marie (Donna Murphy, who’d get an Oscar nomination if Oscar nominations were ever handed out to Todd Solondz films). And it’s in his fantasy interactions with her, moments in which she’s a rich, art-collecting, sexually predatory “cougar” (the coolest type of woman Abe can construct in his limited imagination), where he’s finally allowed his turn to dance. It's very little tenderness and it comes very late, but if you were wondering if this filmmaker is a sadist or a realist in mourning, it’s there that he tips his hand. Depending on your own reservoir of hope for the world, it’ll be gesture enough or fuel to keep you to keep on hating his bleak vision of humanity.