Directed by Todd Solondz
Screenplay by Todd Solondz
Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow
How long is Dark Horse? 84 minutes.
What is Dark Horse rated? No MPAA rating.
‘Dark Horse’ Is a Contender
Dark Horse is Todd Solondz’ most accessible movie since his masterpiece Happiness, but that doesn’t mean that the Welcome to the Dollhouse creator is mainstreaming. No, Dark Horse retains the writer-director’s penchant for New York/New Jersey family dynamics, isolation, severely dark humor, painfully uncomfortable awkwardness, and keen insight into human beings.
Jordan Gelber, whose biggest role prior to this was as a CSU Tech on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, stars as Abe. In his mid to late 30s, Abe lives in his parents’ (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) house in his tiny childhood bedroom populated with still-in-the-box The Simpsons toys, posters of old school Doctor Who, and other knick-knacks. Employed by his father, Abe is too lazy to be terrible at his job, and he spends his days looking on Ebay for vintage action figures while his father’s secretary Marie (Donna Murphy) does all his work. Optimistic (more as a defense mechanism than anything), living in his own world, and blind to his faults, Abe is a man-child.
But Dark Horse isn’t your typical man-child comedy. It’s something greater, more honest, and significantly more powerful. Man-child in this case isn’t synonymous with fun guy. We don’t want him to succeed nor do we want to hang out with him nor do we pity him. Some losers, such as Abe, are beyond mercy; they just exist. They’ve been off the path, any path, for so long that there’s no longer a journey for them to take. Life doesn’t always provide the “better shape up” epiphany, and a montage doesn’t solve the problems for someone who never learned to stand on his own two feet. Instead, the “become an adult” message is played a bit more insidiously, as Abe’s insecurities plague him from his dreams. His mind keeps telling him that he cannot continue to blame others for his own failures and that he is, in fact, a failure, even if he keeps running away from these lessons.
However, this downplays what Solondz accomplishes with Dark Horse. He understands that the man-child is a man who acts like a child. It’s not just about playing games and being silly, it’s about childishness and arrested emotional development. Abe still acts like a teenager, complete with brattiness and intense feelings of sibling rivalry. This element is also seen in his “love interest” Miranda (formerly ‘Vi’) (Selma Blair, who previously starred in Solondz’ Storytellers as Vi). Clinically depressed and heavily medicated, Miranda also lives with her parents, spends most of her time chatting with her friend over Skype, and possesses the same teenage-ish immaturity as Abe. But Abe and Miranda’s courtship is not cute, it’s just sad. It’s the type of relationship where Abe’s subconscious lets him know that she’s too good for him and Miranda accepts him by realizing that she should give up on happiness, a career, life, everything. She takes relief in a kiss not being as horrible as she imagined.
The cast does terrific work. Gelber carries the film and hits those minor quirks and tics that turn someone acting as a fool into an actual fool. Abe makes you cringe, but in a good and purposeful way. Blair also stands out as sadness personified — frail, lost, and barely able to cope. As Abe’s father Jackie, Christopher Walken reminds you how good he can be when not doing Christopher Walken. With a bad toupee and pants pulled up way too high, he says a lot with only sad sack eyes. Farrow as the loving mother, Murphy as the secretary/spirit guide, and The Hangover‘s Justin Bartha as Abe’s successful doctor brother round out the cast.
As always, Todd Solondz is brilliant at capturing the banality of life. Abe’s parents spend their nights in silence on the couch watching old reruns of Seinfeld. When meeting Miranda’s parents for the first time, they talk endlessly about mundane details regarding local traffic and roadwork. Abe leads a nothing existence where he is deluded enough to believe that he is charming and naïve enough to think his lame jokes are funny.
Along with his direction and dialogue, Solondz uses plenty of small things to enhance Dark Horse‘s almost painfully lonely ambiance. The soundtrack is populated by the nauseatingly cheery pop music preferred by Abe. Even the wardrobe is worth noticing. Bright colors and horrible t-shirts show off Abe’s horrible physique and personality, while wrinkles and creases in shirts and pants are a minor nuance that provides a valuable touch of realism.
Yet despite his creations living in a world without a bright spot, Solondz clearly cares about his characters. But caring can only go so far, and some stories are better told without that chance of redemption or hint of sweetness. Dark Horse is a brutally dark and very funny comedy that brings the man-child to a new, depressing, and intellectually and emotionally satisfying level.