“Applesauce,” Onur Tukel’s latest and most accomplished microbudget exercise in cynical absurdism, throws dismembered body parts into a couple of amicable marriages and charts the resultant explosions as paranoia runs rampant. This time around, Tukel casts his charmingly perverse, sardonic persona in the role of a high-school history teacher exhorting peaceful conflict resolution; his addiction to a radio talkshow that asks “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” leads to wildly unforeseeable consequences. With its sarcastic dialogue, deadpan humor, believably flawed characters and surreal logic, “Applesauce” may expand Tukel’s growing indie fan base into niche release.
Ron (Tukel) is pried away from the phone just as he is about to confess his worst deed to talkshow host Stevie Bricks (the incomparable Dylan Baker). He is pried away by his wife, Nicki (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who is impatient to join their best friends, Les (Max Casella) and Kate (Jennifer Prediger), for dinner. Still primed to tell all, Ron confides instead to his wife and friends about how he once severed a promising sax player’s fingers by accident, an incident that has disturbed him for 20 years.
The question of one’s darkest deed continues to reverberate in conversations among the foursome even after they get to their respective homes. The ensuing revelations between spouses provoke anger, hysteria, jealousy, suspicion, retaliations and disillusionment far out of proportion to the relatively minor transgressions revealed. Thus, the act of peeing on a puppy elicits the kind of appalled loathing generally reserved for rapists and murderers.
Meanwhile, Ron becomes the horrified recipient of a severed finger sent through the mail in an inlaid box, followed shortly afterward by a severed foot in his laundry. Finally he finds a penis in his Chinese delivery order, tucked among the noodles, only discovering halfway to his lips what his chopsticks have captured.
Ron’s vaunted cool completely dissolves in panic as he casts around for the person responsible for this barrage of body parts, his suspicions escalating in all directions as he turns his paranoia — first on those who might actually have heard his confession, and then on anyone he feels harbors ill will toward him. His resultant defensive hysteria soon has him suspended from his job, alienated from wife and friends, and missing a body part of his own.
Often mislabeled a mumblecore helmer, Tukel in reality merely overlaps with the movement’s fringes and shares some of its actors. He makes low-budget, darkly comedic films that display an acerbic sense of humor that is both fully scripted and inseparable from the lead character, increasingly portrayed by Tukel himself.
A typical Tukel hero alternately shocks with deliberate politically incorrect provocations and himself exhibits the same behavior he mocks in others. His partial awareness of this contradiction helps not at all to modify his actions. Indeed, the very tone of Tukel’s films is determined by the degree to which the viewer is asked to identify with the protagonist’s intellectual superiority, while also despising his smugness and hypocrisy. As surrounding circumstances grow increasingly surreal, whether from vampirism (“Summer of Blood”), Republican insensitivity (“Richard’s Wedding”), or impotence (“Ding-a-ling-Less”), the viewer’s balancing act is stretched to the point of collapsing in on itself in comedic horror.