The bracingly negative filmmaker Todd Solondz, who appears at the Rafael Film Center on July 20, has made a string of controversial, often difficult to watch tragi-comedies. His newest, Dark Horse, is his briefest yet, a sharp retort to frat-pack/mumblecore celebrations of the adult big-baby experience.
Protagonist Abe (Jordan Gelber) is cocooned at his parents' Long Island house. His room is stuffed with collectible action figures from Toys "R" Us. Abe nurses his grievances under the care of a sweet, dippy mother (Mia Farrow, perfect in the role) whom he regularly skins at their backgammon games.
The hulking overgrown Abe sort of works for his father, a minor strip-mall developer (Christopher Walken, in a cheap acrylic toupee). Ashen with disappointment, Walken often looks at his do-nothing son like someone peering into an open grave.
At a wedding, Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair, in one of her best roles). She is the luckless, humiliated Vi from Solondz's Storytelling, and is apparently another one of those women who changed her first name in hope of better fortune.
Abe tries to press her for a first date, and Miranda is so helpless under the weight of a terrible depression that Abe feels he can propose marriage to her. She eventually accepts, of course.
But here, Dark Horse's deliberately unsteady narrative starts to disintegrate. Even before an incident knocks Abe into a dream world, solipsistic daydreams of his own coolness overwhelm him. Abe says things like, "Do you know, if it weren't for my dad, I could be a singer? Now I'm even too old for American Idol."
When we're in the world of Abe's fantasies, Solondz is at his sharpest; he's cleaning up after a decade's worth of Seth Rogen and Mark Duplass comedies, which invited us to see the arrested-development life as cute and boyish. If you want to be tough about it, this failure to grow up represents a rotten streak that runs through much of suburban American male behavior.
Dark Horse furthers Solondz's argument for a dreadful symbiotic link between bullies and the bullied, and it adds to his annals of torture-centric families. Like John Waters' satires, they've gone past the excruciation point and come out funny—and, lately, strangely reasonable.
Abe's combination of stiff neck and missing spine suggests a fully worked view of human failings, the kind Solondz demonstrated in his 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse. And still, Solondz's Diane Arbus–like eye seems to foresee the awfulness to come. The day I saw Dark Horse, the Penn State investigation was on the radio, and if anything sounds like it came straight from a Solondz script, well . . .
Todd Solondz appears at a screening of 'Dark Horse' on Friday, July 20, at the Rafael Film Center.