With Dark Horse, Todd Solondz offers his take on the arrested-development male that has become such a preoccupation over the last 10-plus years of American filmmaking. Abe (Jordan Gelber) collects toys (like Steven Carell in The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and lives at home with his parents (like, among others, Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Will Ferrell in Step Brothers). As you might expect from Solondz, Abe is less affable than Carell or Segel. Overweight and ill tempered, he operates with the combination of misplaced bravado (he drives a bright yellow Hummer) and crippling insecurity you might expect from a troubled 14-year-old, not a 30something man.
This makes Dark Horse‘s laughs more uneasy and less frequent than its mainstream cousins, though it is at least nominally and partially a comedy. Most of Solondz’s work perches between tragedy and pitch-black humor, which sometimes leads to the charge that he despises or mocks his ill-fated misfit characters.
I’m not sure that’s the problem here. Solondz obviously feels sympathy for Abe; the only other reason to spend so much time in his company would be an act of revenge against a real-life type, and Abe’s situation is too tragic to qualify as score-settling. Gelber does fearless work as a man who sees himself as a “dark horse,” expecting eventually to cross some sort of finish line in victory, a self-classification that seems deluded until you realize how others have been feeding it for most of Abe’s life. It’s a part that Chris Farley might have played, had he lived to work through the darker, sadder themes below the surface of his broadly comic roles. And, in peeling back these layers of sadness, Gelber doesn’t back away from the character’s unpleasantness, but he does reveal the wounded child responsible for adult Abe’s petulance and short fuse.
We first see Abe at a wedding; as guests dance around joyously, he sits at a table with sad-eyed Miranda (Selma Blair) and tries to make conversation. Later, she gives him her number, possibly because she lacks the energy to fake her way out of an uncomfortable situation. Their relationship develops both slowly and far too fast. After a single not-quite date, Abe is ready for commitment.
He’s less ready for adult responsibility. He hangs on to a job at a real estate development firm run by his father (Christopher Walken), and while he makes noise about wanting to leave the nest, he prefers an alternate plan that he reveals to Miranda. He means to wait for his parents to move to Florida and buy (or perhaps simply receive) the house where he grew up.
As Abe struggles, the movie takes detours into his subconscious: visions of his father’s secretary Marie (Donna Murphy) as a combination guardian angel and sexual fantasy; visions of his family telling him what they really think of his pathetic life. Solondz has grown fond of this sort of reality bending; in Palindromes, the protagonist is played by a series of actresses of different ages and body types and Life During Wartime recasts the characters from Happiness with new actors, at least one playing a ghost version of a character killed off-screen in the earlier film.
He revisits old characters here, too, to more subtle effect. The closing credits refer to Miranda as “formerly Vi,” the aspiring writer Blair plays in Storytelling. Miranda makes a brief reference to that discarded writing career, and it’s easy to imagine Vi’s youthful, self-conscious attempts at open-mindedness receding into a depressed, defeated Miranda who considers Abe’s premature wedding proposal because, as she says, “I want to want you.”
Even as an obvious dead end, the relationship between Abe and Miranda holds a delicate, unpredictable fascination, the kind of unsure coupling that seems equally likely to end in a kind of mutually agreed-upon lifelong dissatisfaction or in one partner snapping and murdering the other. But even with his facility at portraying the drudgery of everyday, unsuccessful experience, Solondz has a tendency to emphasize life’s cruelty with sudden story developments. He also gives over a frustrating amount of the film’s brief running time to Abe’s dream sequences, which, like the abrupt plot turns, have a distancing effect that undermines our empathy for Abe or anyone else.
The film doesn’t exactly disdain Abe, but it does increasingly treat all characters with a clinical detachment, as if Solondz has grown bored with simply observing them. Step Brothers offers more trenchant commentary on the trope of the likable arrested-development males in movies (and in life). Dark Horse does humanize Abe’s crushing sense of failure… for a while. But then it has nowhere to go except further into that failure. And as grimly funny and observant as Solondz can be, there’s nothing inherently interesting about showing that someone never really had a chance.