Angst in my pants: Dark Horse ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2012)

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Lowered expectations: Blair and Gelber in Dark Horse

“Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won’t put any of these reasons down…Last year, I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating…He is now separated, still masturbating, but he is at peace with himself because he tried society’s way.”

 -the wedding minister in Little Murders (screenplay by Jules Feiffer)

Todd Solondz loves to make his audience uncomfortable. I can’t imagine anyone sitting through a film like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness or Storytelling without squirming in their seat, grinding their teeth or occasionally putting their hand over their eyes and daring themselves to peek. And what is it that the viewer is afraid of looking at? It’s not what you may think. It’s not an axe murderer, lurking in the closet. It’s not someone being doused with gasoline and set ablaze or having their fingernails pulled out one by one. No, it’s much, much worse than that. Because there is nothing that human beings fear coming face to face with more than…human nature. Or the Truth. Because the Truth is…life is nothing like the movies. Paradoxically, Solondz’s films are a lot like life.

Refreshingly, his latest film, Dark Horse, does not induce the usual amount of squirming and grinding and daring yourself to peek. Not that it lacks the dark comedic flourishes that have become the director’s stock in trade, but it actually toys with sweetness and light. Sort of a twisty, postmodern art house re-imagining of Marty, the story centers on Abe (Jordan Gelber), a portly thirty-something nudnik who lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, worth the price of admission right there).

Abe works for his father, collects action figures and doesn’t have any aspirations. You sense in Abe an undercurrent of angst and desperation, likely exacerbated by constant doting from his over-protective mother and verbal drubbing from his hyper-critical father. Abe also harbors a seething resentment toward his brother (Justin Bartha), a successful doctor.

Yes, Abe is a man-child…in the most petulant, cringe-worthy sense (which makes him a typical Solondz protagonist). Yet, he sees himself as a catch; a “dark horse” waiting to be discovered by some lucky lady (perhaps one who finds a delusional thirty-something man who works for his dad, collects toys and lives with his parents to be devastatingly attractive). Still, Abe registers genuine surprise when Miranda (Selma Blair), a lovely thirty-something woman he meets at a wedding, gives him her phone number after a few minutes of meaningless chatter.

Of course, there is a catch. She’s completely nuts (and lives with her parents, too). She’s so profoundly depressed (and heavily medicated) that she can barely hold a conversation. However, she is startled from her psychotropic haze when Abe proposes marriage during their first date (“You’re not being ironic…like performance art or something?” she asks). Abe assures her that he is being dead serious.

From this point onward, the viewer begins to wonder if maybe it is the filmmaker who is being ironic…like performance art or something? Without giving too much away, we become uncertain whether some events are occurring in the protagonist’s reality, or in his imagination. Gelber (who reminds me of the late Jack Weston) imbues his troubled character with enough vulnerability to invite empathy, yet spikes the punch with a fair amount of edgy unpredictability (lest we get too comfortable).

Blair slyly pinpoints the sweet spot between funny and sad with her deadpan performance, and Walken’s magnificently gauche toupee deserves its own star billing. Solondz has fashioned something akin to a modern Jewish morality tale, in the tradition of Jules Feiffer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler (Could Solondz be their heir apparent?). He’s also delivered a thought-provoking treatise on life, love and death. While he doesn’t let anyone completely off the hook (including the audience), he slips enough humanity and compassion into the mix to make the Truth a little bit easier to swallow this time around.

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