Todd Solondz Dark Horse: Dark center + bright periphery
Whether or not you’ll appreciate writer-director Todd Solondz’s tragicomedy Dark Horse, which starts a one-week run today at the Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood, depends on whether or not you can empathize with the plight of its lead character. If you see Abe (Jordan Gelber) as a tragic victim of fate (his looks, his parents, his job, his taste in women, his scratched toys), you may get into his story. On the other hand, if you – like me – see Abe as a boorish, obnoxious, self-centered grown man trapped in a pre-teen’s mindset, then you’ll quite likely have trouble fully appreciating Solondz’s latest effort.
Dark Horse: Hazardous Abe
An overweight, unintelligent, 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 borderline suicidal woman he meets at a wedding. Though filled with asides and dream sequences reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, the flimsy Dark Horse “plot” centers on Abe wooing and eventually winning the object of his desire. But at a hefty price.
The key reason why I found Abe all but intolerable was his lack of humor. True, Abe, the character, is supposed to take his petty childishness seriously. But the actor portraying him, Jordan Gelber, should definitely have been humorous. However, presumably following Todd Solondz’s direction, Gelber is anything but mirth-inducing.
During the course of Dark Horse, Abe suffers through a series of cruel and (highly) unusual punishments, from having Christopher Walken as his father to being The One (as in “one in a billion chances that someone will…”). Those moments should have been (darkly) hilarious. Unfortunately, I found myself merely shrugging at Abe’s misfortune while bracing myself for the moment when the-world-is-against-me Abe would visit his local gun shop, get himself a deadly automatic weapon, and start a shooting rampage.
Dark Horse: Superb supporting cast
Having said that, Dark Horse is a marvelous character study if you pay attention to those in Abe’s periphery. Christopher Walken is flawless as Abe’s Clint Eastwood-sounding father, who wears his pants almost up to his neck; despite the man’s cold, detached exterior, there’s clearly some deep-set ambivalence toward his “dark horse” son. Mia Farrow, looking like someone else who looks and sounds like Mia Farrow (get it?), is just as good as Abe’s mousy, backgammon-playing mom. As a plus, Tyler Maynard is brilliant in a brief role as an effeminate Toys R Us-like toy-store attendant who becomes one more obstacle in Abe’s drab life.
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 Abe, after having considered his marriage proposal. “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 in what amounts to two roles for the price of one: Abe’s plain, timid, protective co-worker and the determined, no-nonsense “cougar” of his hallucinations. If there were any cinematic justice, Murphy would be up for all sorts of Best Supporting Actress recognition next awards season.
Life is hard, Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, tells us. It may be your fault, if may be fate’s fault, it may be both your and fate’s fault. You think that’s bad? It could get 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 (2012). Director: Todd Solondz. Cast: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy, Justin Bartha, Zachary Booth, Tyler Maynard, Aasif Mandvi, Mary Joy, Peter McRobbie. Screenplay: Todd Solondz.
Dark Horse Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair picture: Vitagraph Films.