Directed by: Todd Solondz
Written by: Todd Solondz (screenplay)
Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken
Todd Solondz is a master of the sad laugh. He has a fascination with depressing losers and societal taboos, the miscreants we don’t want to see in real life, let alone the movies. By refusing to blatantly mock these people (which have included sex addicts and pedophiles), he establishes worlds that are both darkly comic and unflinchingly honest and complicated.
Dark Horse is one of Solondz’s gentler efforts. Its worst (and main) character is Abe (Jordan Gelber), a nauseating, obnoxious schmuck who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and blames everyone else for his problems even though he was given every advantage upper middle class white life afforded him. There is an undercurrent of loneliness and insecurity behind all of Abe’s outbursts, though, which is what connects him to the other, quieter outcasts in Solondz’s movies.
From the time Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding in the beginning to the hallucinatory final third, he and the movie become a refreshing antithesis to Hollywood’s obsession with the man-child from movies like The Hangover and Knocked Up. He is not irresistible to women because of his charm and his toy collection is anything but endearing; in fact, as the movie slowly continues to loosen its narrative screws as well as Abe’s mental ones, he comes off as creepy, not charming.
Nobody really seems to notice, though. Miranda is far too depressed and medicated, and his parents refuse to acknowledge it. We become privy to Abe’s real state through imaginary conversations he has with a secretary at his dad’s company (Donna Murphy), where he also works. Much of what he says and does to other characters is a way for him to hide his insecurity over being less successful than his brother (Justin Bartha), but here she picks away at his shortcomings but also weirdly sympathizes with him at the same time.
Solondz walks the fine line between mockery and empathy, though ultimately Dark Horse feels like a transitional work more than a defining one compared to some of his other movies. He leans a little bit too much on the “Dark Horse” metaphor of the title at times, but this by no means ruins it. You’d be hard pressed to find a better, more biting original screenplay this year.
After Abe seemingly triumphs and gets Miranda to temporarily leave her pill daze and agree to marry him, a series of increasingly tragic events unfold. It all builds to a wonderful dreamlike series of scenes that are alternately funny, tender and sad. When compared to his last film, Life During Wartime, it is a much more formally experimental movie.
As a result it is less assured, but there are moments and scenes as good as anything he’s done; from Miranda and Abe’s awkward first kiss (“That wasn’t awful!” she says, sighing with relief) to the first thing his dad says to him when he wakes up after a car accident (“Don’t worry, insurance is covering it.”) The actors all do a terrific job in shying away from judgment with the characters that say things like this, creating people that are as sympathetic as they are ridiculous. Gelber and Blair in particular are astonishingly good.
Just because Dark Horse is the antithesis to Apatow-esque comedies, though, does not make it a cure. There is space for both disgusting and endearing man-children in the movies, especially when Apatow actually directs the movies instead of just producing them. Solondz is a truly unique filmmaking voice, though, and the way he probes and picks at middle class suburbia is ultimately more satisfying than simply reveling in it.