Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 21, 2012 10:07 am 
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Jewish 35-year-old lives at home with action toys, seeks wife

Dark Horse is the grim but ultimately sympathetic portrait of Abe (relative newcomer Jordan Gelber, all too convincing), a socially retarded 35-year old New Jersey Jewish schlub who lives with his parents, Phyllis and Jackie (Mia Farrow and Chris Walken, both superb), employed at his father's real estate firm, which develops strip malls. Abe's job performance is desultory, his mood often frustrated and angry. He puts more energy into collecting action figures on eBay that he displays in the boy's room he's occupied all his life. His biggest toy is the new yellow Hummer he drives to what he imagines is a "date" with the morose, near catatonic Miranda (Selma Blair, rich and strange), whom he's recently met at a wedding. Miranda somehow agrees rapidly to marry Abe but turns out to have not only serious mental and physical problems, but a lingering attachment to her last failed relationship with the smiley Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi). Once Abe begins having sexy, borderline oedipal imaginary meetings with his mousy coworker, his dad's secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy), the distinction between real and surreal becomes blurred for protagonist and viewer for the rest of the film and Abe's life heads down a precipitously tragicomic path.

What's new here is not only the main character but a mildness and restraint about the film despite a continuation of Solondz's usual very personal dark worldview, a pessimism about the human condition always tinged with sympathy. In response to a question I asked him at a San Francisco Q&A the director explained he wanted to make a movie that wouldn't offend anybody this time, that "even a child could watch," free of the shocks and sexual perversity that have made his work controversial and offensive to people in the past. He also was interested in examining the young paunchy Jewish loser type so prominent in American movies lately, especially through the Apatow factory productions featuring the likes of Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen. Solondz's narrative arc in Dark Horse is surreal, but his picture of this kind of person's prospects in life is also cool and honest, free of the fat-boy wish fulfillment fantasies Apatow comedy indulges in.

Coming to Dark Horse from Solodnz's masterful previous effort Life During Wartme, one can't help but be highly tuned to the freeze-dried wit of the dialogue. One smiles again throughout. But this time the pleasure fades somewhat with the protagonist's and the film's gradually waning sense of reality. Wartime opens up to a larger world through multiple characters whose dimensionality is enhanced by their mostly being carried over from his most important previous film, Happiness. Wartime shows impressive maturity in understanding and technique, qualities less evident this time. But Dark Horse isn't really a falling-off: Solondz maintains his low-budget independence and the originality that goes with it. His "mildness" is no sellout but, for this tough customer, more a daring stretch, a fresh experiment.

His take on his characters remains as original as before, his work with actors still impressive. Given the very limited means and restrictions imposed by his controversial reputation, he was, as he explained at that Q&A, very lucky to get Farrow and Walken, and they do not disappoint. Farrow is both real and hilarious as the weak Jewish mother. Stonyfaced and given to withering stares, Walken is consciously "ordinary" this time, holding back the English he usually applies to every verbal shot and perceptibly different from previous performances, but still riveting. Solondz has a way of holding the focus on characters in a scene that increases intensity and his dangerous poise on the edge between tragic and comic is breathtaking. Jordan Gelber is strong here, a slightly sickening life-force.

This aging Jewish boychild is a new, more penetrating look at the normally indulged pop culture type. Abe's not at all like the mainstream fat boys who get the pretty girls and win the sympathetic laughter. To begin with he lacks the giddy Apatow insecurity that begs for our sympathy. He seems pleasant, friendly and blindly self-confident, but this stance is scarily self-destructive. He is not likable -- but we can never simply dismiss him. He can turn angry and violent in a heartbeat when crossed. His ego's too large and too dangerously deluded for the safe people-pleasing attitudes of fat-boy comedy. While the Apatow comics bump frequently into reality but falsely triumph over it like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Abe hides from it till he crashes and burns. He hates his successful doctor brother Richard (Justin Bartha) and rejects all efforts to help him. His father however offers the "tough love" of dismissal from work.

Viewers seem confused as to whether Solondz is mocking his characters or the culture with things like the "American Idol"-style music that runs chirpily and emptily through this movie. But Abe buys in. He would have liked to compete on the TV show ("I'm too old for 'American Idol,'" he says regretfully). The culture excludes him. His world is bleak, his success all delusional. J. Hoberman's description of Solondz's outlook,"compassionate misanthropy," is accurate. Hoberman like Armond White (a Solondz admirer) compares Dark Horse to Death of a Salesman, the fantasist's decline and fall (recently given a flashy reboot on Broadway). The Coens' A Serious Man, the Jobian ordeal of a modern Jew, is another obvious comparison. But White thinks Abe is a truer Everyman than Willy Loman. Solondz lacks the sentimentality of Arthur Miller or the cruelty of the Coen brothers. The pleasure of his work, even when he disappoints a bit, is its quite unique point of view.

Dark Horse debuted in competition at Venice and showed at Toronto, both in September 2011. It opened in NYC June 8, 2012, in the UK June 29. The French release date is August 29, 2012. It opened at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema July 20 and was screened for this review at a preview there July 19, 2012.


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