Todd Solondz is the master of suburban angst, but for me his films run hot and cold. When he’s hot, as in the recent Life During Wartime, he has an uncanny ability to find both absurdist comedy and poignant drama in the vicissitudes of everyday characters. When he’s cold, as in Palindromes, he can be positively off-putting. Dark Horse falls somewhere in between, which is frustrating because the movie shows so much promise.
New York-based actor Jordan Gelber, who appeared in the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q, seems to be channeling Jackie Gleason (or perhaps Kevin James) as a blustery, overweight 30-something loser who still lives with his parents and blames them—and his successful brother—for all of his self-inflicted problems. He foists himself on a mousy and unsuspecting Selma Blair, who (surprisingly) responds to his advances, in a tentative way. But this one, lone victory can’t counteract the steadily mounting losses he chalks up, day after day, screwing up on the job (in his father’s real estate office) and being unable to complete even a simple transaction like returning a scratched action figure to Toys "R" Us.
Gelber’s character traits as an overgrown adolescent are recognizable, but that doesn’t make him any easier to root for. The one person who cares about him, a drab secretary in his father’s office (Donna Murphy), becomes a fantasy figure in an increasingly odd and elaborate series of dreams and/or hallucinations.
Yes, I said dreams and/or hallucinations, because that’s the direction this movie takes. Solondz never explains what’s real and what’s in Gelber’s imagination, so he keeps us off-balance and doesn’t provide resolution—for his protagonist or for us in the audience.
I don’t insist that a filmmaker spell everything out; in fact, I usually like some degree of ambiguity and shades of gray. But Dark Horse left me flustered because I invested in the truthful portrayal of these people—so well played by Gelber, Blair, Murphy, and as Gelber’s parents, Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow—and I feel as if he pulled the rug out.
If you like Todd Solondz’s work, Dark Horse is still worth seeing…but you may not be able to make complete sense of what you’ve seen.