Some artists work in paints; others work in sculpture; Todd Solondz works in a particularly middle- to upper-middle-class suburban misery. His latest, Dark Horse, may be his lightest film yet, and it’s still deliciously depressing as it follows its star in a pop-inflected downward spiral.
Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber is a jerk. He lives with — and off of — his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow), in the same bedroom, decorated pretty much the same as when he was a kid. And he’s got the same, spoiled teenager attitude, doing nothing as his job in his father’s real-estate business while the secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy), picks up the slack. He bugs out in the middle of the day I his tricked-out Hummer, saying he’s going to meetings to cover for watching a movie alone in an empty theater or arguing over returning an action figure with a scratch mark on it.
Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding — whose is never quite clear — where they both remain seated when everyone else hits the dance floor. He gets her number — clearly not picking up on her disinterest — and on their second meeting meeting asks her to marry him despite her living three hours away with her own parents (Peter McRobbie and Mary Joy). And, even more bizarrely, she agrees after her ex-boyfriend (Aasif Mandvi) suggests that she should abandon all hope of a literary career or, for that matter, happiness.
Solondz sets the uncomfortable tone perfectly. There is no background music to soften the harsh silences, except the twee bubblegum pop which comes from Abe’s Hummer or his iPhone.
He also gets just the performances he needs out of Gelber and Blair as two complimentarily miserable failures to launch. I’m not sure when Blair grew out of being insufferable, but a real, grown-up part with a capable director suits her far more than roles that always seem to call back to her work on Cruel Intentions or Legally Blonde. And Gelber has come out of nowhere doing character work and one-off television episodes to deliver a solid leading performance. It’s hard not to see discrimination against his weight keeping him from getting better opportunities.
But it’s Murphy who really steals the show as Marie plays a starring role as confidante in Abe’s inner life. Even in small parts like the one she played in The Bourne Legacy, she has a presence that pops from the screen; given two radically different characters to work with, she nails both of them. Watching her performances alone is worth the price of admission.
Characteristically for Solondz, the film walks a fine balance when it comes to Abe. At first glance, this is really a horrible person with serious emotional problems. But we are called, as we often are, to see the underlying humanity in this tragically flawed character. And then we realize that, no, he’s still awful. Back and forth we go, unable to approach Abe with either sympathy or condemnation. He is, in the end, what he is. As are we all.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.