Todd Solondz’s films are trips into abysses of intense misery, seriously disturbing examinations of lower-middle-class suburban despair. Almost irreverently infused with shocking dark humor and achingly unsentimental, his better works are beautifully strange pieces of filmmaking, aggressively painful stories that manage to feel profound even as they resemble rides through an emotional hell.
Then there’s “Dark Horse,” his newest exercise in extreme cynicism, typically bleak but to little effect. Solondz has always demonstrated great understanding of his characters, which range from social misfits to child rapists, imbuing them with pathos that allows the audience to be compelled by their struggles. Abe (Jordan Gelber), the protagonist of “Dark Horse,” falls somewhere in the middle of Solondz heroes in terms of vileness, but ranks dead last in terms of earned empathy.
Abe, a slovenly loser dependent on his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) for home and employment, defies a key expectation for a Solondz lead. Instead of meekly crawling through life, he presents himself to others as a boisterous gasbag, cruising around Long Island in a yellow Hummer. He adopts a forced swagger in social situations, such as attempting to return a toy with a superficial scratch and forcing a date with Miranda (Selma Blair), a stranger he was seated next to at a wedding. “Don’t worry, I am not a Trekkie or anything super nerdy like that,” Abe confidently assures Miranda when he shows her his room, which resembles an action figure museum.
Miranda, functionally the same character Blair portrayed in Solondz’ “Storytelling,” is the sort of cripplingly timid type one would have expected the protagonist to be here. Stricken with the gloomy countenance and defeated whine that Blair could pull off in her sleep, Miranda allows Abe to effectively strong-arm her into accepting a marriage proposal, only to later reveal she has a potentially fatal communicable disease, throwing his fragile plans into a tailspin.
Abe is a difficult man to spend 80 minutes with. His whining, pitiable gestures, and achingly sad psyche are believable (at least before the film takes an abstract turn), but he’s emphatically unlikeable. Even the child molester in “Happiness” was sympathetic because he was rendered as a man afflicted with a deep sickness, but Abe’s ailment is laziness and mediocrity. What the audience feels for Abe is worse than hatred, which at least allows us to feel passionately; this is just pure dislike.
The latter third of the film shifts directly into Abe’s imagination, with the office secretary (Donna Murphy), who in reality does most of his work, playing the role of advisor and narrator. Inside Abe’s mind, the viewer gets a greater insight into why he has turned out to be a lackluster adult. These reasons are perhaps accurate but not particularly compelling: he’s a loser because he’s a loser, jealous of his successful brother (Justin Bartha), doomed from the start because apparently being a half-functional person wasn’t in the cards. Solondz’s films uniformly present existential anguish as a prison that no one leaves, but here the point feels shallow.
Solondz proves that he is still able to humorously and sharply portray how the lonely and dysfunctional can act when they inhabit the same space. His actors serve him well. And there’s a surreal conversation between Abe and Miranda’s ex-boyfriend (Aasif Mandvi) that supplies a keen, sad insight into perhaps all of the world’s losers. But with Abe front and center, “Dark Horse” struggles to gain the viewer’s loyalty, and then falters as entertainment. Solondz has been quoted as saying, “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.” Applying that statement to “Dark Horse,” I think he might be right.