When you watch a Todd Solondz film, you can be pretty sure you won’t see any car chases that end in building-crippling explosions. You’re getting an off-kilter character study that develops its own form of socially awkward pretension. Maybe I just feel socially awkward while watching them, I’m not sure. In Dark Horse, he tackles the life of the mentally pigeon-holed man-child. I wasn’t completely thrilled with it, but I daresay it’s worth a watch for Christopher Walken’s hairpiece alone.
The subject of arrested development is a difficult one to make wholly enjoyable. To make a terrible analogy, the namesake TV show and rap group work because they have fun with their subject matter. You’d think an adult male with staid childish impulses might try and have fun all the time. Unfortunately, Dark Horse’s Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber) is wrought with selfishness and an ego built on self-deception. He lives with his parents Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow). He works for his dad, but can barely handle the few responsibilities he’s been given. In his head, he’s justified in acting like a complete asshole to both parents, just because he knows how to set the Tivo. The relative success of his older brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), and any comparison to him, come together as the albatross around Abe’s neck. He assumes nothing is wrong with him, and does not force a filter upon any of his hatred for humanity’s evil ways. He isn’t the obvious champion. He is the dark horse.
Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, two wallflowers in a room of partygoers. Miranda, who also lives with her parents, shares a similar life slump with Abe, and although there is a spark of potential present that should affect her personality, Blair plays her flatter than a pancake for most of the film. When set up against Gelber’s mountain of assertion, I guess she can’t help but be overshadowed. She is facing temporary depression, and allows this to guide her and Abe’s strange not-quite-romantic relationship, which is the main focus of Abe’s story. His distaste for his parents’ marriage and unfamiliarity with love and sex should make him completely incompatible, but Miranda finds comfort in his dutiful doting, though his insistence on having a future together is a hurdle for her.
Cinema is filled with this film’s narrative skeleton, but Solondz fills Dark Horse with curious quirks and eccentricities that waver my central distaste for Abe and his life. Abe’s coworker Marie (Donna Murphy) plays a double role as Abe’s alternately sexy and motherly reality-based conscience, popping up when he’s second-guessing his own bull-headed actions. It’s an odd aspect, and thankfully avoids explanation. At home, Jackie and Phyllis watch a dysfunctional family sitcom based on the Costanzas from Seinfeld, that even features the role reprisals from Jerry Stiller, Estelle Harris, and Jason Alexander, since footage from the show would have been more expensive. There’s a fun and uncomfortable cameo from Aasif Mandvi as Mahmoud, a gay friend of Miranda’s. Abe’s bedroom decoration is also superb, and worth a pause to check out the posters and toys. Also, the pitch black humor in the last few minutes almost saved the entire movie for me.
Another great touch is an early scene as Abe tries to make a return to a huge Toys”R”Us store, and the store name is blurred out through the shot. I don’t know the intentions behind it, but it immediately sets up the slightly surreal tone that continues through the end. Unfortunately, the scene actually involving the product’s return is a stereotypical exchange with a store clerk who is polite, but completely unhelpful for no reason at all. Like some other scenes, it appears that problems are written in solely to give Abe troubles, rather than appearing natural to the flow of life. Perhaps we’re only seeing through Abe’s eyes, and the nature of the scenes is distorted for poetic license. Should this be the case, it would serve the story better, but would make those scenes no less frustrating to watch. To be fair, Toys”R”Us returns to feature into a metaphorical breakdown that almost justifies the first instance.
Dark Horse lives through Gelber’s standout performance, and the character is fully realized. Reminded of Patton Oswalt in Big Fan, I was bothered here as well to think about the people in this world who share too many similarities with Abe, because danger only ever seems a moment away. Should Abe’s conscience apparitions not ground him, he might soon destroy the already crumbling world around him. Unfortunately, nothing else stands as tall as Abe, and the film’s unevenness is evident. It’s not a movie for every day of the week, but Dark Horse is required viewing for anyone with an overly rosy outlook on society. Not everyone is worthy of being championed.
There are no features to be found. A small hairy-chested theatrical poster would have been nice.
Reviewed By: Nick Venable
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