A stunted state of development
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 17, 2012
Few filmmakers are as unforgiving of self-deception as Todd Solondz. From the moment he arrived on the scene with his breakout film “Welcome to the Dollhouse” in 1995, he has pursued one of the most idiosyncratic and confounding careers in movies, delivering sharply lambent comic gems (“Happiness,”
“Storytelling”) and sour, misanthropic misfires (“Palindromes,”
“Life During Wartime”) in equal number.
For Solondz purists, “Dark Horse” may signal something of a softening of the 52-year-old auteur. (When he presented the movie at the Maryland Film Festival in May, he called it “the saddest of all my comedies.”)
Jordan Gelber plays Abe, a spoiled Long Island rich kid who still lives with his parents, has a do-nothing job with his dad (Christopher Walken), wears a rhinestone name necklace and drives a bright-yellow Hummer. As “Dark Horse” opens, Abe sits miserably at someone else’s wedding reception, his misery equaled only by that of the woman next to him, a sad-eyed lady of the Five Towns named Miranda (Selma Blair).
As the camera records their conversation, the traditional “meet cute” of Hollywood romantic comedies is turned on its fizz-free ear: Amazingly, Abe pursues Miranda, despite the wan, hollow-eyed obviousness of her lack of interest. “I want to want you,” Miranda moans later in the film, looking miserable. “That’s enough for me!” Abe responds brightly.
Like most of Solondz’s films, “Dark Horse” pivots around his characters’ delusions, which extend here to Abe’s outsize image of himself as a terrific guy (he isn’t) to the faux-luxe sweaters worn by his coddling mother (Mia Farrow). Solondz gets plenty of digs in at American consumerist culture. Abe’s necklace evokes the promiscuous get-more-ism of “Sex and the City,” and Toys R Us -- its name coyly blurred -- is a key location, rife with metaphorical meaning for a society determined to stay infantile and amused at any cost.
So, we get it: Abe and Miranda are idiots surrounded by an idiotic culture (he can’t even unscramble George Clooney’s name during a preview game at the local multiplex). Solondz is canny enough as an observer of human nature to know exactly how to bring foreshortened expectations and thwarted desires to uncompromising life on-screen. And he has given his actors space and material to deliver some stand-out performances, especially Blair and Donna Murphy, as Abe’s office mate and key player in his conflicted inner life.
As Abe tells his mother: “We’re all horrible people.” But do we really need Solondz’s signature caricatures and cruelties to tell us that? For its welcome whiffs of poignancy and compassion, there’s an inescapable sense in “Dark Horse” that Solondz is as arrested as his protagonist, going back to the same well -- of middle-class entitlement, artifice and pathology -- and bringing back the same bitter water. It would be unfair and patronizing to say that Solondz needs to grow up, but “Dark Horse” suggests that it’s time for the bard of bourgeois hypocrisy to consider moving on.
Contains mild violence, profanity and scenes of teens drinking