[15 September 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Justin Bartha, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Jordan Gelber, Donna Murphy, Christopher Walken
Todd Solondz (Happiness, Life During Wartime) understands tackiness on a deeper level than just about everyone else in the business besides John Waters. Fascinated by the weirdos, geeks and screw-ups among us (and the weird geeky screw-up inside each of us), at his best Solondz can put his audience in a place where we are laughing at characters not just because they are ridiculous, but because we feel like we’ve been there too, somehow. At his worst, and he is at his worst a lot of the time in this picture, Solondz has us merely sneering at his characters, mocking them for their foibles, and cheering on their failures.
Dark Horse is a mean, angry kind of character portrait, a film that wants to be Confederacy of Dunces but forgets to make us care enough to want to follow along. Although the film is often very funny, it is far too often meanspirited and uncomfortable. As a schlebby, hateful manchild (who fancies himself a “dark horse” in the race of life, destined to come from behind and win) Jordan Gelber stumbles through a series of daydreams and waking nightmares toward his inevitable death. Along the way he proposes marriage to a deeply depressed Selma Blair on a whim, fantasizes about his much older secretary (“You’re, like, a cougar!” he exclaims, befuddled), and tries to decide whether to buy a $450 Thundercats figurine on eBay.
Featuring Christopher Walken as his tough love father, Mia Farrow (!) as his doting mother, and Aasif Mandvi as his romantic competition, the quality of the cast makes up for many of the problems with story and treatment. But, finally, too many people will find this dark horse too unlikeable to cheer for, and too awful to mourn.