This "Dark Horse" is a winner. Of course, Todd Solondz is no underdog in independent cinema; the master of satirical and sardonic comment on the American condition is the one we look to for cringe-inducing black comedy. Let the horror fans have their blood and decapitations. Solondz deals in the sorts of social horror- everyday atrocities of the awkward and puerile- that spur a completely different sort of shuddering. If only his films weren’t so relatable.
Abe (Jordan Gelber), the titular beast, is a character well-drawn to be a laughable loser - there must be no ambiguity on that point - but also a sympathetic guy whose frustrated good intentions are also painful for the viewer. The challenge for Solondz is to strike an effective balance between humor at the characters’ expense (in "Happiness" it was more an ensemble of losers; in this case it’s mostly about Abe) and the empathetic drama that makes the audience care about the story. He excels.
Abe is obese. He works at his father’s strip mall spawning real estate company, not because he’s adept or invested but because he never finished college and lacks the will to do anything else. In his office, diagonal from his father’s, he shops for collectible figurines; and, when not at work, he can likely be found at Toys ’R Us arguing with the effete store clerk who refuses his return request. Solondz blends absurd details with other ones that allow viewers to get a sense of his subterranean torment, though the humor is never distant. Yes, he is bullheaded and exudes a false confidence, but it’s not easy growing up with a dashing brother who rises to the top effortlessly.
The film’s opening scene is catchy as hell and brilliant in the way that Solondz first establishes the absurdity of the mainstream world out there, then shows that the two outcasts aren’t doing much better. The opening shot reveals a wedding party with guests gyrating madly to pulsating dance music; then the camera pans to Abe and unlikely love interest, Miranda (Selma Blair, whose sad puppy looks are remarkable). Abe seems content enough; Miranda looks miserable.
He leans over to her with a big, friendly grin and says, "I don’t dance." Then when she hesitantly leans in to hear him better he adds, with contrived nonchalance, "It’s just not my thing." Her smile indicates clearly that she finds him pathetic. But, as it turns out, she is pathetic, too, in a completely different way. She wears her depression for all to see; only later does she reveal (Abe seems oblivious; but it’s nice for the viewer to know) that the failure of her literary aspirations have led her to suicidal tendencies, then parental dependency and torpor.
She is a sophisticated woman; in the recent past she was likely dining at chic cafes while Abe was driving through for burgers, but Abe’s sincerity and stability, she thinks, could be what she needs to get out of her unsustainable rut. Miranda delivers a hilarious mini-monologue in which she ends by meekly declaring that she should just get married and have kids, give up on independence and having a career. Most of the time when she is ostensibly talking intimately with Abe, she is really just airing her uncertainties and insecurities. His presence and input are mostly extraneous.
And so an awkward courtship proceeds, while Abe also deals with the intensifying tension with his father-boss. Momentum picks up quickly given that Abe proposes on their first (non) date, but there are numerous complications, to be sure. For one thing, Miranda has a secret of her own. Will her secret pariah status bring Abe closer to her or scare him away? And what about her ex- the disingenuous Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi)? The first time Miranda is shown in her sophisticated sheen is when she and Mahmoud have invited Abe out to a swanky restaurant so that Mahmoud can check him out.
One could say that in this encounter Solondz misses the opportunity to write an extensively awkward and telling encounter. What does unfurl is abbreviated but curious. Solondz, commendable as his social critiques are, does seem to have an odd disdain for gays. The film gives this impression because of Mahmoud’s unexpected restroom antics (it seems he’s a pretentious profligate homo, not just a pretentious prick) and the ridiculousness of the store clerk character.
This isn’t "Happiness" in which every character seems merely a different shade of ridiculous. Abe’s parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and brother (Justin Bartha) actually contrast with him in their reasonableness and normalcy. They aren’t cruel and unusual in their treatment of the family failure (though they are brutally honest, in Solondz style), and this helps to highlight Abe’s despairing condition.
The story is rounded out by the intriguing character of Marie (Donna Murphy) - the dutiful secretary by day and hard-nosed cougar by night- and Abe’s imagined encounters and conversations with her. There are times when the distinction between reality and illusion is hazy, and the ending is disappointingly indistinct. But in light of the overall shimmer of this film that offers modest heart while still withholding the happiness, that’s a quibble to keep minor.
The San Francisco Film Society screens "Dark Horse" on July 19 at the Film Society Cinema. Director Todd Solondz will be in person. It also opens July 20 at a Landmark cinema to be announced, with Todd Solondz making an appearance on opening night. Simultaneous opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, with Todd Solondz appearing July 21.