The parallel is too easy, but Todd Solondz‘s Dark Horse really is a Dark Horse. Not only does the main character, Abe (Jordan Gelber), take some time to get any empathy, the movie itself isn’t exactly an instant winner. The reason is clear: so much of it is tied directly to a curly hair-chested baby of a man who drives a yellow hummer and doesn’t understand anything except his own victimhood. With only ten minutes under its belt, it’s difficult to see falling in love with it. That’s where the saying about books and covers comes in.
Almost any other director might struggle to avoid making a movie focused on Abe into a chore, but Todd Solondz is most comfortable when he’s most uncomfortable, and the result is a drama that is singed with comic moments that belong in a therapist’s waiting room.
The fleshy pile of wasted opportunity that we follow works for his father (Christopher Walken), lives with his parents (his mother is ably played by Mia Farrow), complains at 60 mph, and is aggressively awkward. And not in that fun, Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way. He’s genuinely terrifying to see interact. Somehow, he gets the attention of the massively depressed Miranda (Selma Blair) and the two begin a romance that would profoundly change any normal character in any normal romantic comedy. Fortunately, what Solondz offers here is delightfully atypical.
For starters, Gelber is a hell of a find. Some actors struggle to force every ounce of negativity to the surface when playing an unlikable character, but Gelber effortlessly creates a sweaty lug that grows on you with the passing events. He goes from being the guy you’d avoid sitting near at the airport to a friend who you sometimes want to punch in the face. It’s a dramatic transformation – one that requires a bit of faith from the audience, but one that is ultimately rewarding. After all, Abe plays the victim too much to take seriously, but there are scenes that cast him as the loser he is, and it hurts. No matter the brutality of his brain, he becomes human over the course of the film, and when he’s mistreated, it’s difficulty not to feel a wince of empathy.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Blair has her brooding, sick-eyed thing going on – the despair is palpable but never disingenuous. Walken gets to stretch his legs a bit by playing the abused straight man to the chaos around him; there’s no schtick or clowning to his performance, and it’s surprisingly refreshing. Farrow’s presence is like finding the last puzzle piece after searching for hours. She’s the warm-hearted center in a frozen tundra. Justin Bartha plays Abe’s successful brother and wears the constant confusion at his brother’s disdain on his sleeve.
The formula here adds up to healthy character work done by veterans and newer talents alike. Solondz assembled a brilliant cast, which was absolutely necessary in bringing this difficult writing to life without taking a strip of sand paper to fan’s faces.
It’s shot simply and brightly. There’s a lot of energy to it even though idling is a major theme. Arrested development done with a balled up fist and a bottle of Vicodin. And, of course, it’s blisteringly funny at times. That is, when it’s not being cripplingly sad.
Not completely straightforward, there’s a fantastical element to it that needs a bit of parsing. Solondz isn’t content to spoonfeed, and Abe’s delusions give the writer/director room to play around (especially with an irritating customer service representative at a toy store). But the shifting realities aren’t confined to Abe’s mind – the movie is full of lonely imagery from suburban society (a common commentary from Solondz). Abe’s yellow hummer, an icon itself, is often in huge-yet-empty parking lots; Abe sits alone in stadium seating for a movie no one else wants to see; the neighborhood streets aren’t bustling with life.
From that isolation, Solondz has given birth to a strange new character that simultaneously embodies the spirit of the Manchild and laments the elements that formed it. Abe has the worst attitude possible, and he’s the reason he’s failing, but he earns something that looks like pity. That’s a formidable achievement that could have been sabotaged by making Abe one inch too mean or one inch too lame.
The balance is incredible, but if there’s a downside to the work, it’s that it can’t help but feel slight. It’s a clever twist on the Apatow-style hero, but it’s not a movie that feels large enough to make an impact. It thrives off subtlety, but even the existential anger that comes in the climax isn’t enough to make a huge emotional dent. Obviously, this is the kind of complaint that merely proves it’s a great film to begin with. If you give it the chance to grow on you.
The Upside: Stellar performances, a cynical take on a character who recently entered popular culture, and the usual Solondz wit
The Downside: It feels a bit light, the beginning requires a commitment it hasn’t yet earned
On the Side: Selma Blair’s character is actually Vi from Storytelling, which makes this a semi-sequel.