TIFF 2011: DARK HORSE Review

     September 12, 2011

Following his surreal and reflective Happiness sort-of-sequel Life During Wartime, dark comedy specialist Todd Solondz returns with Dark Horse, a film that only initially appears to be his most mainstream outing to date. As a filmmaker who revels in the world of societal outcasts, it was inevitable that the writer/director would eventually find his way to creating an entry in the recent spat of manchild comedies. However, Solondz is no Apatow and his tale of a 35-year-old man who still lives with his parents and spends most of his time pondering his latest action figure purchase isn’t merely a gently comedic take on the subject. Laughter is only the starting and as the film wears on, it soon becomes a sad deconstruction of manchild comedies and a hallucination-fueled nightmare of immaturity and failure. Not exactly a light date movie for the Seth Rogen crowd, but a comedy that cuts deep into the current filmgoing infatuation with unjustly glorified juvenile behavior.  Hit the jump for more.

The films stars the previously supporting role specialist Jordan Gelber as Abe, a grown man whose life is dedicated to collectables, cheesy pop music, playing games with his mother (Mia Farrow), and slacking his way through a top position at his father’s office (Christopher Walken). He still happily lives at home and has no intention of leaving, dreaming of one day marrying a woman and moving her into his childhood bedroom until his parents move to Florida. The dream seems close to reality when he meets the heavily medicated and equally lost Miranda (Selma Blair, possibly reprising her role from Storytelling), who agrees to at least try to settle for Abe because she has nothing better to with her life. It all seems primed to become an “eccentric girl fixes damaged boy” comedy until Abe’s fractured and tenuous hold on reality starts to slip and award realism gives way to pained delusional surrealism.

The first half of Dark Horse offers some of the most taboo-free comedy of Solondz’s career and it briefly seems as though the cult director may have created his first movie since Welcome To The Dollhouse to have a shot at mainstream success. Abe’s clearly a deeply stunted social misfit, but at least he’s irrationally content and seems to have a shot at the girl. Though rather quickly the filmmaker who is incapable of pandering makes it clear that Abe’s immaturity is not some cute affectation or defense mechanism. He’s damaged and possibly psychotic, while Miranda is using him purely to pretend she has a shot at a normal life. The film is hardly a celebration of the manchild phenomena. The lifestyle is shown to be a product of insecurity, neuroses, and delusion with Abe’s active fantasy life gradually taking over his fragile reality. Though empathetic, there’s nothing cute about these regressed characters. They’re sick and Solondz explores the hows and whys through his patented brand of comedy designed purely to create those special kinds of laughs that stick in your throat and (god-forbid) provoke thought.

As always, Solondz’s cast is spectacular. While inevitably the likes of Zach Galifianakis or Jonah Hill petitioned for the central role, Jordan Gelber is oddly perfect. His character is happy only when lying to himself, which occurs constantly. Mia Farrow is tragically sweet as his mother while Christopher Walken appears at his dead-eyed, deadpan comedy best as a weak father stretched to his breaking point (and really, it was inevitable that Walken would work for Solondz eventually. They were made for each other). Selma Blair delivers her best performance in years as a deeply depressed and self-loathing variation on her role in Solondz’ Storytelling. Others in the cast stand out as well (including Broadway veteran Donna Murphy who is heartbreakingly funny as Walken’s empathetic assistant and Abe’s fantasy crush), but really that should come as no surprise given that Solondz is known for understated directing and carefully crafted characters. He tends to always get extraordinary work out of his actors, possibly as a result of the fact that screenplays this strong and varied are so rarely found in Hollywood.

As with any Solondz movie, Dark Horse is far from universally appealing, but it will at least play for more people than his last two almost experimental films (Life During Wartime and the abortion meta-dramedy Palindromes). The film doesn’t quite have the emotional depth and black comic bile as Happiness. It’s lighter fair for Solondz, which still means that its incredibly dark and fucked up when compared to normal movies. However there’s a chance this might appeal to a few more broad audience members than anything he’s made since the 90s. Dark Horse should be something of a Solondz gateway drug. It’s a bleakly funny and insightful study of a disturbed societal outcast that’ll warm you up for the harder stuff available in the director’s back catalogue.

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:

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