Todd Solondz isn’t one of those filmmakers who is for everybody. He is one of those directors who has a relatively small, but rabid following. His work is often controversial, but much of it has also earned quite a bit of critical praise. His newest film which was released to little fuss is ‘Dark Horse.’
Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a thirty-five year old man who still lives with his parents (played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow). He works at his father’s real estate firm doing menial tasks but his passion is collecting toys. Abe’s older brother Justin (Justin Bartha) is a doctor, but the two ‘boys’ aren’t really on speaking terms.
Things change for Abe when he meets a heavily medicated woman named Miranda (Selma Blair) who is blasé about everything, especially giving Abe the time of day. Eventually, his persistence pays off and the two get to know each other a little bit. She is a failed writer/academic who lives with her parents and has problems of her own.
Is this ‘relationship’ what Abe needs to get his adult life started? Is he putting all of his emotional eggs into one basket? Will the toy story ever allow him to return that one toy he bought which had a scratch on it? He has the receipt! (You’ll understand that after you watch the movie).
Right off the bat, this is the most palatable Solondz film he has made yet. That’s not to say it’s his best or most enduring, but if you were to introduce one of his films to a sensitive viewer, this would be it. The DVD case is covered with blurbs saying how the film is his ‘warmest,’ ‘gentlest’ and ‘most endearing’ work. Those assessments aren’t inaccurate.
For a lot of the story, this is a case of a few adults with arrested development. It’s like a slower, much less broad ‘Step Brothers’ or ‘Jeff Who Lives At Home.’ Much of the conflict, and the title, comes from the fact that Abe always felt like the second-favorite son. His struggle is to finally overcome that and to carve out a path for himself. There are some moments that are a little strange early on, but nothing too wild. This changes as the story progresses.
As the plot builds momentum, so does the weirdness. It is still mostly restrained for a Solondz film, but it’s there. For example, Abe suddenly becomes prone to having strange daydreams. They are entertaining, yet disorienting because, while sometimes it is easy to tell what is a fantasy, there are other moments when it isn’t so clear. They can really take the viewer out of the story, though they do add some much needed spice.
At one point, we are given an ironic twist that not only emerges from between a few daydream sequences, but also comes across as a little mean-spirited. Things go from bad to worse and it’s hard to say whether or not it’s justified. Have the characters really learned anything or grown? That’s debatable. The end just comes out of nowhere and the very short runtime seems to indicated that Solondz wanted to spend a certain amount of time with the characters and was suddenly done with them. Some of the director’s longtime fans will really like how it ends, and it is appropriately twisted but it is abrupt.
Abe isn’t the easiest sad-sack to root for. He blames his woes on everyone else and lashes out at those who care about him. Sometimes he comes across as really shy, polite and pathetic, so the audience has a complicated relationship with the protagonist. Miranda is hard to judge because she is often emotionless except for a few telling scenes. Walken plays one of his most subdued characters in recent memory and Farrow’s character is a patient, doting mother to Abe. Donna Murphy plays the most dynamic character here, Marie, a meek, middle-aged office worker who looks out for Abe at the office but has a dramatically different personality in Abe’s daydreams.
Special features include: nothing.
So ‘Dark Horse’ is an unexpected entry from Solondz. By avoiding much of the uncomfortable subject matter of his past films, he has created a story that could resonate with a wider audience. It probably won’t be seen too far outside of his normal fanbase of independent, cult-movie weirdos, but the effort is duly noted.
Ultimately, this isn’t one of Solondz’s classic efforts and it will probably amount to a very ephemeral experience but it is a respectable effort.
Not Rated 88 minutes 2012