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Dark Horse

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating

By

Dark Horse

Jordan Gelber and Mia Farrrow in a scene from 'Dark Horse'

If there's a traffic accident on the northbound side of a highway, you can rest assured there'll be congestion on the southbound side, too. Even if you don't want to look – because you feel it is ghoulish, or you just spent the past 30 minutes cursing the other rubberneckers – you HAVE to look. You always look. It is part of what makes us human. What we do and how we feel after we look, I suppose, it what differentiates us.
Todd Solondz has been making rubbernecking films since the mid-1990s. His first major success, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was a bit ahead of its time with its frank portrayal of bullying. Happiness, his most notorious work, is a collage of dysfunction, depravity and sadness. After Happiness Solondz made three films (Storytelling, Palindromes and Life During Wartime), all very much worth seeing, but each stretching further into unconventional narrative. His newest film, Dark Horse, appears at first to be a little more mainstream in its approach. Indeed, its central figure, the live-at-home, retro-pop culture obsessed mid-30s “man child” might even be considered somewhat old hat at this point. Midway through the film, however, Dark Horse takes a turn into the surreal, through layered fantasy and far-fetched character developments.

These shifts in tone, beginning with the mopey Selma Blair agreeing to the preposterous marriage proposal from our undesirable lead, certainly make for decent comedy opportunities, but it makes it extremely difficult to appreciate Dark Horse on a “real” level.

It's a foolish choice, in my opinion, because the initial, conventional setup offers more than enough material from which to make an insightful (and funny) film. Abe (character actorJordan Gelber) is remarkable as the central schlub. He's simultaneously agreeable and exasperating – you feel for him as he suffers life's indignities, yet you also want to punch him in the back of the head for being such a revolting putz.

This divided reaction is mirrored with his parents. His mother (Mia Farrow) showers him in affection, playing an endless backgammon tournament on the losing end, and his father (Christopher Walken) merely scowls and silently drinks beer in front of the TV. That's at home, anyhow. During the day, he's the boss, frustrated as all hell that his T-shirt wearing son can't complete the simplest of tasks.

It's a sad portrayal but, of course, funny, because even the most industrious of us have have trace elements of Abe in our DNA. He is completely clueless in his courtship of Selma Blair and is quick to fly off the handle at the Toys R Us clerk when his out-of-box collectable can't be returned. Solondz keeps him at a distance, though, having him listen to dreadful pop songs that you'd think a guy like that would frown upon. This dissonance goes off the rails when the attractive-but-catanoic Selma Blair accepts Abe into her life. It would never happen - and you'd think a filmmaker as intimate with the sad, true nature of human relationships would know that. It shatters the reality of the film, which later extends into dreams within dreams, and never really recovers.

Blair's character is actually the same girl from the opening sequence of Storytelling, but even though I saw that 2001 film I didn't realize it until I later did some Googling. It leads me to believe that Solondz is so wrapped-up in his own micro-universe that he might be having trouble distinguishing his good instincts from his bad ones. Would I have appreciated Blair's character more if I'd been hip to her back story? Possibly. But what is still there, her sunken eyes and over the top pronunciation of the name “Mahmood” is still enough to make me slow down the car and stare.
  1. About.com
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  3. World / Independent Film
  4. Independent Film
  5. Spring 2012
  6. Dark Horse review - A Review of Todd Solondz Dark Horse

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