Reviews

'Dark Horse' is Todd Solondz's Take on the Arrested-Development Male

As grimly funny and observant as Todd Solondz can be, there's nothing inherently interesting about showing that someone never really had a chance.


Dark Horse


Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy, Justin Bartha
Rated: NR
Studio: Brainstorm Media
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-08 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

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.

5

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image