“We’re all horrible people. Humanity’s a fucking cesspool,” says 35-year-old Abe (Jordan Gelzer), standing in his polka-dotted childhood/current bedroom, a smattering of action figures and a bottle of קוקה-קולה in soft focus, to a loving mother (Mia Farrow) who will listen to and accept anything he says. It’s a thoroughly Solondzian moment: a pitifully absurd view of deeply flawed people who recognize their limited potential, when the worst has been stated and accepted and where there’s nowhere else to go but down. For his entire career, Todd Solondz has dared audiences to identify with unsavory characters in middle-class America, while effectively putting them through the wringer, if for no reason other than to prove a point: these sad, obnoxious people can’t change as a result of their experiences, and neither can we. But for a director whose bluntly ironic storytelling usually rings less of hard truth than absurd repugnance, this scene is a rare moment of warmth, one that calls out less to Abe’s immediate world than that of all the director’s films combined. It begs the question: is Solondz finally showing some love to his characters?
Well, not entirely. But it’s a start. In Dark Horse, Solondz pares down his usual themes to create a rather lucid aberration of the American dream, a film seemingly poised as a corrective to the Apatow school of arrested development while being refreshingly single-minded in depicting its protagonist’s self-absorption. Foregoing the ensemble-driven productions he’s made since after his breakout (and arguably best) depiction of social anathema, 1997’s Welcome To The Dollhouse, Solondz has made his least dour and most successful character study in years — at least before it devolves into the grim punishment and contrived surrealism that has become his métier. But if Solondz’s films often grate in their mockery of spirituality, Dark Horse gets something right in its detailed portrayal of a selfish putz who doesn’t know any better, stomping through consumerist terrain of drab surfaces and drabber personae until his dreams just about trip him over. Perhaps Solondz suggests that we deserve to handle this steadfast dark horse, having left him to his own design on the way to our own ambitions — or perhaps his existence is inevitable. Yet Solondz keeps just enough room for pathos on the way to darker things, a director who prefers not to leave his stumbling characters standing upright.
Abe is a loud, overweight, Diet Coke-guzzling man-child who blasts treacly Top 40 in his Hummer on the way to work (for Dad) and lives eternally in the shadow of his successful doctor brother (Justin Bartha). “It’s not my fault!” he yells to his dad, Jackie (Christopher Walken). Like an older version of Seth Rogen, Abe might seem less pathetic if he wasn’t looking for love, and when we first see him, he’s all but insisting on getting the phone number of a brunette named Miranda (Selma Blair, who is here reprising her role as Vi from Storytelling). Abe’s life is already ample with sympathetic women — including his co-worker Marie (Donna Murphy), who sporadically flashes in Abe’s peripheral vision as a sort of conscience — that the severely disinterested Miranda accepting him into her home after a three-hour drive isn’t that much of a stretch. But when he asks her to marry him, a necessary question is asked: “You’re not ironic…performance art, or something?” Indeed, Abe is so sincere, so un-self-conscious that his lack of thought is the most engaging thing about him. He’s the only character in the film that doesn’t seem preoccupied, as if nothing else could possibly be plaguing his mind. (In one of the film’s best comic digressions, a slow pan across the faces of Abe and Miranda’s parents meeting each other perfectly displays this tic.)
But then Solondz brings the plague, slowly but surely, starting with a scene that sucks all air out of the theater and which forces our hero to do some YouTube research. Without spoiling anything, it’s easy to know what Solondz is up to: he wants us to take seriously characters who have never been taken seriously, and he likes to be especially morbid about it. Dark Horse’s latter third plays as a prolonged act of self-recognition, in which the thought of losing everything gives rise to ideas of what could have been, and in which Abe shows more of an imagination than we had reason to expect. In a bout of narrative disjointedness, Abe’s worst fears — including that he may very well be worthless to his family — fade into unconscious fantasies, including the saintly Marie’s secret life as a very rich, very promiscuous woman. While Solondz has never striven for realism, his treatment of stock types and situations can be trying, and Dark Horse loses momentum in these tonally jarring moments.
It’s hard to know how to feel during a Solondz film, and perhaps that’s the point. This is still the same director who can make a white girl saying “I had a long Skype with Mahmoud” seem funny in all the wrong ways. It should be mentioned that Dark Horse contains some of Solondz’ most striking stylistic flourishes, from its sweeping opening pan to one of its last shots: a quiet, elongated pulling back from Abe as he stands alone in the hallway of his childhood. Solondz is also a master of tiny but telling details, whether in an “Israel: The Dream” poster wryly hanging in Abe’s hallway, or Abe’s playlist of hilariously over-the-top pop songs (which, based on my lack of Google results, seem to have been commissioned by Solondz himself). While this director would do better than to throw his characters into the void, his vaguely experimental seventh feature still shows signs of life. After all, to quote the film: “It could have been worse…so much worse.”