Todd Solondz is not for the masses. The director’s films are frequently depressing exercises that detail a curious cast of misanthropes. Though this may sound like a reproach, his movies can be a catharsis. They dissect a suspected underbelly of middle American life. He’s the caretaker of a well manicured garden who removes a monumental stone statue to reveal a family of worms living in the soil underneath. Regardless of whether you connect with these loners, the experience gives the viewer a sense of superiority. Solondz seems to closely identify with this lot more than any director working today. Blending elements of comedy and drama, he revels in exposing the picture perfect facade of suburbanites
Dark Horse begins with an atypically lighthearted touch. The songs that underscore the action are light bouncy dance pop ditties. The mindlessly upbeat score doesn’t jive with the depression unfolding before us. Get it? It’s ironic! Yes the charm is in these type of details. Jordan Gelber is Abe, a Jewish 35 year old that still lives at home with his parents. In a bit of stunt casting these roles are portrayed by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken. Their very presence is comical. Abe’s quarters resembles the bedroom of a toddler. It’s absolutely packed with comic book memorabilia and Simpsons figurines. Abe sports a gold blingy nameplate necklace in script. He wears goofy t-shirts with messages like “Matzo Ball’er”. He drives a ridiculously huge bright yellow hummer. He meets attractive Miranda at a wedding and they embark on an odd relationship. Over time, he develops from a shallow caricature of a loser into a heartbreaking schlub with a soul. He’s almost Marty-esque.
The relationship of the central couple can be somewhat baffling. Initially you feel sorry for these people. Todd Solondz has a snippy contempt for these individuals that can be amusing. Selma Blair plays Miranda, the object of Abe’s affection. She’s outwardly pretty but possesses some internal dysfunctions of her own. She is amusing at first but over time her personality wears on you. Blair does the best with what she’s given, but there is no depth as her oddball character is written. She is an expressionless void of a woman. Her character is frustratingly vague, representing an emotion not a human being. Only when her ex-boyfriend shows up does she even bother to crack a smile. As lovers, Miranda and Abe behave in inexplicable ways. Their self punishing choices show a lack of desire to help themselves. After a while you start to realize these eccentrics deserve their lot in life.
It’s not easy to get on Todd Solondz’s wavelength, but once you do it’s a unique ride. The story goes from optimistic to very grim. He draws humor from serious situations. There’s a feeling of schadenfreude in watching their pathetic lives implode. Two-thirds of the narrative is really quite engaging. But Solondz doesn’t know how to end his tale effectively. It loses momentum and the ending mixes fantasy with reality in a confusing climax. Before we arrive at the inevitable conclusion, however, we’re treated to Abe’s fantasies. These aren’t delusions of grandeur where a nebbish becomes a hero. They’re practical displays of the truth that assert the harsh reality of his existence. Frequent star of these daydreams is his co-worker Marie. Hollywood take note of actress Donna Murphy who memorably gives life to the role. She nearly steals every scene she’s in. Mousy secretary by day, but seductive cougar by night. She extracts laughs simply by the slinky way she walks with a glass of wine in her artfully decorated home. If everyone had been this well written, Dark Horse could have been something revelatory. Instead it’s merely satisfying.