- Dark Horse (2011) movie review: A humorless central performance weakens Todd Solondz’s all-but-plotless black comedy; on the plus side, the funky supporting cast – Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Donna Murphy, et al. – is terrific.
Dark Horse movie review: Todd Solondz’s tenebrous comedy has dour center but dazzling periphery
Whether or not you’ll appreciate writer-director Todd Solondz’s tragicomedy Dark Horse, which debuted at the 2011 Venice Film Festival and now begins a one-week run at the Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood, depends on whether or not you can empathize with its lead character.
If you see the overweight, small-minded underachiever Abe (Jordan Gelber) as a tragic victim of fate – his looks, his parents, his job, his taste in women, his scratched toys – you may be able to feel his pain.
On the other hand, if you see Abe as an obnoxious, boorish, self-centered jerk with a pre-adolescent mindset, then you’ll likely have trouble feeling anything but revulsion for him. You’ll also be unable to fully embrace Solondz’s latest effort.
A lazy slob, Abe works – or rather, pretends to work – at his father’s real estate office. Abe’s true interests, however, are his toys and Miranda (Selma Blair), a near-suicidal woman he meets at a wedding.
The flimsy Dark Horse “plot” – filled with narrative asides and dream sequences reminiscent of those experienced by Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry – centers on Abe wooing and eventually winning the object of his desire. But as to be expected, that turns out to be a pyrrhic romantic victory.
Now, even viewers who manage to empathize with Abe will probably have trouble sympathizing with his humorless self. Of course, Abe, the character, is supposed to take his petty childishness seriously; but Jordan Gelber, the actor playing him, should elicit at least a few chuckles.
The opportunities are plentiful. Yet, presumably at the direction of Todd Solondz, Gelber never makes use of his character’s comedic possibilities.
During the course of Dark Horse, Abe suffers through a series of cruel and (literally) unusual punishments, from having Christopher Walken as a father to being The One (as in, “There’s a one-in-a-billion chance that some unlucky bastard will…”). But instead of shedding tears of mirth, viewers will likely be biting their nails, bracing themselves for the seemingly inevitable moment – along the lines of The Assassination of Richard Nixon – when Abe visits his local gun shop, buys himself a semi-automatic rifle, and goes on a shooting rampage.
Top-notch supporting cast
On the positive side, Dark Horse is a marvelous weirdo study as long as you place your focus on those in Abe’s periphery.
Wearing his pants almost up to his neck, Christopher Walken (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for The Deer Hunter, 1978) is flawless as Abe’s Clint Eastwood-sounding father, whose unemotional exterior belies conflicted feelings toward his “dark horse-wannabe” son.
As Abe’s mousy, backgammon-playing mother, Rosemary’s Baby and Hannah and Her Sisters veteran Mia Farrow, looking quite a bit different than her usual self, is just as good, and so are Justin Bartha as Abe’s physician brother and Tyler Maynard in a brief role as an effeminate toy store attendant who becomes one more obstacle in Abe’s drab existence.
Also spot-on is Selma Blair as Abe’s fiancee, delivering her lines in a deathly monotone to great effect. “I should stop trying to slit my wrists,” she tells her prospective husband-to-be. “Give up on a literary career. Give up on hope, ambition, success, independence, self-respect. I should just get married and have children!”
But most remarkable of all is two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy (Passion, 1994–95; The King and I, 1996–97) in what amounts to two roles for the price of one: Abe’s plain, timid, protective co-worker Marie and the determined, no-nonsense cougar of his hallucinations. If there were any awards season justice, Murphy would be up for all sorts of Best Supporting Actress recognition later this year.
Life is a merciless bitch
Life is a meaningless, pointless nightmare, Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse shows us – whether it’s your fault, fate’s fault, or both your fault and fate’s fault.
You think that’s bad?
It could get worse. Much worse.
Things could go wrong even after you die.
And you’ll be lucky if there’s one person who remembers you once you’re gone.
Dark Horse (2011)
Direction & Screenplay: Todd Solondz.
Cast: Jordan Gelber. Selma Blair. Mia Farrow. Justin Bartha. Donna Murphy. Zachary Booth. Christopher Walken. Tyler Maynard.
“Dark Horse Movie (2011) Review” endnotes
Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair Dark Horse movie image: Vitagraph Films.
“Dark Horse Movie: Things Can Always Go Further Astray” last updated in September 2021.