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“Dark Horse”: Is Todd Solondz Lightening Up?

June 7, 2012

You wouldn’t expect a traditional rom-com from Todd Solondz, the oddball indie writer-director whose first feature was prophetically titled Fear, Anxiety and Depression. His ironically titled follow-ups Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness weren’t much sunnier, with their indelible portraits of a terrorized junior-high-school outcast and a semi-sympathetic pedophile. Yet with his sixth film, Dark Horse, Solondz set out to make a “boy meets girl” story, as he told the audience at last night’s sold-out Film Society of Lincoln Center preview screening. The result is like Marty on Klonopin. And I mean that in a good way.

Perhaps due to his resemblance to a giant infant, the all-but-unknown (until now) Jordan Gelber stars as Abe, an over-grown manchild who still lives miserably at home with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, perfectly cast) and works for his dad’s property-management company. But unlike the adorable Peter Pans of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Jeff, Who Lives at Home—not to mention virtually Will Ferrell’s entire oeuvre—Abe is an obnoxious misanthrope. Solondz said he was interested in “testing the limits of the audience’s sympathy,” and he also tests their patience by asking them to care for such a spoiled ass, prone to fitful rages and self-soothing trips to Toys R Us.

And yet, after Abe meets another clinically depressed live-at-homer, Miranda (Selma Blair, in maybe her best role ever) at a wedding, where they’re the only two table-flowers not on the dance floor, we, and she, start to develop an attachment to the big brat. That only intensifies when Solondz begins to blur the lines between Abe’s real life and his active fantasy world, in Buñuel-esque scenes reminiscent of his dabbling with surrealism in Palindromes. We start to see the desperation and despair lying just beneath Abe’s childish meltdowns, as Marie (the exquisitely subtle Donna Murphy), a low-key secretary at his father’s office, becomes a central figure in his imagination.

Lest this sound overly experimental or pretentious, let me reassure you that Dark Horse is also Solondz’s funniest and most accessible film. The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi pops in for an uproarious sequence as Miranda’s sexually ambiguous ex, and The Hangover‘s Justin Bartha brings more comic relief as Abe’s overachieving doctor brother. In the end, there’s even a glimmer of—dare I say it?—hope. Could it be? Has Todd Solondz found… happiness?

What’s your favorite Todd Solondz film? Anyone care to speak up for his previous effort with Selma Blair, Storytelling, or with Paul Reubens in Life During Wartime?

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