Directed by: Todd Solondz.
Written by: Todd Solondz.
Starring: Jordan Gelber (Abe), Selma Blair (Miranda), Christopher Walken (Jackie), Justin Bartha (Richard), Zachary Booth (Justin), Mia Farrow (Phyllis), Aasif Mandvi (Mahmoud).
Note: I saw Todd Solondz’ Dark Horse at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. I haven’t heard that he made any changes to since then, but thought I should mention it anyway in case he did.
Todd Solondz is one of the most interesting, provocative filmmakers in the world right now. From Welcome to the Dollhouse to Happiness to Storytelling to Palindromes to Life During Wartime his films are all darkly comic moral puzzles where we are forced to reevaluate everything we think, sometimes from scene to scene. His characters are all on the outskirts of normal behavior, and he walks a fine line between mocking them and loving them. In short, his films have always been among the most interesting in any year they were released. Until his latest, Dark Horse, anyway, which is a major disappointment.
The film stars Jordan Gelber as Abe, a Jewish man living in New Jersey (where else?) who still lives at home with his parents, Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow). He even works for Jackie’s real estate company, although quite clearly, he has no idea what he’s doing. Everyone else shows up to work in suits and ties, and he shows up in shorts and the type of “witty” t-shirts most people stop wearing around the age of 17. This overweight, balding man in his early 30s is quite simply a pathetic loser – who views himself as a dark horse, which he pretty much has to since his brother is a doctor, and he hasn’t done anything with his life yet. If he doesn’t see himself as a dark horse, he’d have to admit he was a loser – and he cannot do that.
Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, and although she clearly doesn’t think much of him (they barely say a word to each other), he asks for her number, and stumped for an excuse, she gives it to him. She even agrees to go out with him when he calls, but when he shows up at her house (where she too, lives with her parents), she isn’t there. No matter – Abe waits in his behemoth, yellow eyesore of a Hummer until she gets home. Abe talks and talks and talks to Miranda, who barely responds, before, for some reason, he asks her to marry him. First she says no, and then a few days later, calls back and accepts. Why? Who the hell knows? I sure couldn’t figure it out. From there, dark secrets are revealed, and Abe starts disappearing into a fantasy world that involves him and his dad’s secretary. Abe isn’t sure that Miranda, who after all looks like Selma Blair, will actually go through with the marriage – or for that matter, if he will.
I have to admit – I have no idea just what exactly Solondz is going for in this movie. He has often stated in the past that some of his movies are in response to other films – moments in Storytelling take shots at American Beauty for example, and Palindromes, about abortion, has some things to say about Vera Drake. So perhaps Dark Horse is Solondz’s response to the recent spat of films about overgrown man children, who meet a beautiful, perfect woman, and somehow gets them to sleep with them, and the relationship forces them to grow up. I’m thinking in particular of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, and you can see the parallels between the two films, although Solondz doesn’t view his main character as witty or funny, but just pathetic, and certainly does not view Miranda as the personification of female perfection like Katherine Heigl was in that film. And perhaps had Solondz followed this premise more precisely – and his film was funnier – it could have worked. But there were too many easy jokes – Walken and Farrow’s hairpieces for example – that quite simply fell flat. There is no real insight here, and Solondz isn’t really challenging the audience’s expectations, but is rather taken an easy way out.
It certainly doesn’t help that Jordan Gelber isn’t very good as Abe. He is such an obnoxious jerk, and not in a funny way, that you spend the whole movie wanting to get away from him – which is impossible since he’s in nearly every scene. Selma Blair fares better in perhaps a reprisal of her role in Storytelling (the IMDB lists he character name as Miranda, formerly Vi, which is what she was called in that film). There are certainly similarities between the two characters, and Blair nails the precise acting style required in a Solondz movie. But she’s the only one who does – and her character is underwritten.
As it stands, there are isolated moments in Dark Horse that work, but nothing to really sink your teeth into. Solondz has always embraced society’s so-called “losers”, and criticizes that society that that insists on dividing everyone in simplistic categories – with the “winners” usually being vain, superficial and cruel, where as the losers are more sympathetic – even when those people are perverts or pedophiles. But what divdes Dark Horse from the likes of Happiness is that I felt no sympathy for Abe. The situation he is in is completely of his own making – his lonliness is a result of him being an insufferable jerk. The movie becomes more surreal as it goes along, but it never really reveals an more depth to Abe – like Happiness did with the Jane Adams character, or poor Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the deluded suburbanites in Storytelling, the misguided teenager in Palindromes, or the sad sack pedophile getting out of jail in Life During Wartime. Solondz has always succeeded in making us care about characters that normally we would despise. But in Dark Horse, he never succeeds in making us care for Abe. Yes, society can be cruel by dividing everyone into winners and losers – but in the case of Abe, it isn’t untrue or unfair. You have to at least try to not be a jerk.