“This is the reason our culture is in the shitter,” says writer-director-star Onur Tukel in his very funny New York comedy “Applesauce,” and that may as well be the mantra of the movie. The Turkish-American filmmaker is no stranger to acerbic satire, having most recently poked fun at urban struggles with the outrageous vampire comedy “Summer of Blood.” The riotous approach still has teeth in “Applesauce,” and while they don’t dig quite as deep, Tukel’s script about a quartet of self-involved New Yorkers still has plenty of bite.
With a trimmer beard and a slightly less offensive demeanor than his bottom-feeder character in “Summer of Blood,” Tukel’s Ron Welz lives a somewhat more stable life, but that doesn’t last long. As the movie begins, the garrulous high school teacher calls into a local radio show hosted by foul-mouthed instigator Stevie Bricks (Dylan Baker) for a segment in which listeners confess the worst thing they’ve ever done. Later, he shares the deed with his wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and their couple friends Les and Kate (Max Casella and Jennifer Prediger): At a college frat party years ago, Ron inadvertently lopped off the fingers of another man in drunken brawl. The absurdly grotesque climax of the story, and the baffled reactions of Ron’s audience, epitomize the devious sense of humor at the root of the movie.
Ron’s revelation leads the couple’s friends to reveal their own “worst thing you’ve ever done” stories, which ultimately finds Kate revealing that she drunkenly hooked up with Ron ages ago. Her admission sets the stage for a series of squabbles between the four of them as the future of both relationships seem uncertain. There are aspects of this conundrum that recall Bobcat Goldthwait’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” with the implication that some bad behavior is better kept secret, but Tukel’s just getting started.
The setup quickly shifts into a series of devious developments that toy with our expectations. When Ron begins receiving amputated body parts in the mail — and discovers another one at the laundromat — he grows increasingly suspicious of everyone around him who might be responsible: Facing off against his former friend and his rebellious student, Ron constantly throws his outrage around as if it were the only weapon at his disposal.
The mystery doesn’t entirely hold together, and the resolution arrives with something of a shrug, but that’s part of the movie’s curiously lighthearted charm. Ron’s rambunctious, paranoid sensibilities are more a manifestation of his narcissistic tendencies and the distinct attributes of urban paranoia than any specifics from the meandering plot. His script thrives on irony early on, when he finds Ron lecturing his students about empathy with a long-winded speech about the motivations that led to 9/11. Despite his air of intellectual superiority, Ron’s just as simple-minded and egotistical as anyone else.
But he’s not alone. Tukel’s script spends just as much time focused on the downward spiral of married couple Les and Kate, who go from adorable lovebirds to feuding enemies over the course of only a few scenes. Casella is a particularly endearing comic figure, who plays off his rascally Italian-American tics with a touch of early period Joe Pesci. The two central female characters never get the chance to let loose on the same level, but that’s understandable given that Tukel’s own perspective seems to pervade every scene. Everyone and everything in “Applesauce” is a comic time bomb prone to explode at any moment. It doesn’t always hit its targets but the sloven, goofy storytelling never ceases to amuse.
Tukel’s humor includes throwaway lines about Donald Rumsfeld and Marshall MacLuhan, reference points he wields with the kind of discursive silliness one can find in earlier, funnier Woody Allen comedies. Also like Allen, Tukel excels at playing with precise touchstones of New York City living, from lines like “I’m not a coward, I used to live in Bed-Stuy” to the pair of klutzy NYPD officers dispatched to investigate his stalker. Their indifference to his conundrum forms an effective running gag. In Tukel’s version of the city, stupidity and incompetence lurk on every corner.
The movie’s third act melts into a series of random twists involving death, multiple acts of vengeance and other peculiar developments, some of which are left unresolved. Even then, however, the wacky, unruly plot has a consistent through line: Tukel invests most of his narrative making terrible people objects of ridicule, with a final punchline suggesting that, in the game of life, everyone’s stuck on one side or the other of the same bad joke.
“Applesauce” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.