The universe of damaged characters Todd Solondz has created in his movies is generally considered a cruel, angry place, even by his biggest fans. His latest feature, "Dark Horse," plays by those same rules and thus won't convert any committed Solondz haters. At the same time, it carves a fresh path that deviates from existing patterns in his work with a more accessible narrative. In "Dark Horse," Solondz displays an uncharacteristic warmth, if not outright optimism about the human condition. Notwithstanding the meandering script and occasionally blocky staging, Solondz has delivered a zanier take on his usual downbeat routine, but in this case the weirdness redeems the material rather than defining it.
The story centers on Abe (Jordan Gelber), a portly toy collection in his mid-30s who lives with his parents and works for his disapproving father (Christopher Walken) in a deadbeat office job. His mother (Mia Farrow) openly admits their preference for Abe's successful doctor brother (Zachary Booth) and condemns Abe's comparative incompetence. So far so Solondz, except that the initial scenes introducing Abe's world proceed with a simple eye for character detail not found in any Solondz movie since "Welcome to the Dollhouse."
Dropping the complex ensemble approach of "Happiness" and its quasi-sequel "Life During Wartime," not to mention the experimental structures of "Palindromes" and "Storytelling," Solondz at first winds up in somewhat new terrain. His construction of shlubby dreamer Abe's lonely routine proceeds with an awkward pace and even a noticeably amateurish technique. Soon enough, however, Abe begins a series of critical assertions that make the director's presence more readily noticeable. "Humanity is a fucking cesspool," he sighs, as if he's ready to jump right in.
But an early scene holds the key to his potential salvation: At a wedding, he strikes up conversation with the over-medicated Miranda (Selma Blair), an apathetic young woman whose zombified demeanor allows Abe the opportunity make all the advances he wants.
"Dark Horse" tracks Abe's growing obsession with Miranda and its impact on his vain desire to escape his mundane life. With this fundamental trajectory, the movie maintains the exterior of a gentle romantic comedy. It subverts that mold when Solondz travels inside his character's psyche and turns his world upside down, but still maintains a distance from the outright hopelessness that Solondz often dwells in. ("Dark Horse" is also devoid of overt sexual perversity, which by itself marks a significant departure for him.) In recent years, Solondz has embraced understatement; like 2009's "Life During Wartime," the new movie contains a deeper agenda that creeps into the contrived story and eventually overtakes it with unexpectedly insightful results.
Abe's exuberance at discovering Miranda leads to a premature marriage proposal and dreams of a settled blue collar existence, but his idealism is short-lived. Miranda's existing relationship with a domineering ex (Aasif Mandvi) returns Abe to his sense of inadequacy while fueling his need to take immediate action. That action, however, starts to drift in confusing directions. Once the journey down the rabbit hole of Abe's twisted reality begins, the tale embodies a familiarly Solondz form of self-deprecation.
As Abe's life spirals out of control, so does his grasp on the world around him. He begins to imagine his father's affable secretary (Donna Murphy) as a wise seductress pushing Abe to take action against the oppressive societal forces holding him down. Abe's curious fantasies grow increasingly odd and indistinguishable from everything else in the plot. By mimicking his confusion, the movie takes on a fuller, profoundly engaging dimension. Individual scenes don't all add up, but their procession develops into a wondrous Kafkaesque mystery both moving and strange. In other words, vintage Solondz, by way of a few new detours.
Solondz's legions of detractors tend to go after his movies for treating his characters with relentless contempt, but "Dark Horse" portrays Abe with a level of empathy that's lost on the mainstream version of adult male loser so often played for laughs (for example, take one look at the trailer for "Bucky Larson: Born To Be a Star," if you can bear it). By inhabiting Abe's daydreams, Solondz legitimizes the character's plight, allowing "Dark Horse" to breach the director's self-made universe and bleed over into our own.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Solondz, as always, is destined to receive mixed notices. The movie's lack of a major star in its lead role, and the offbeat story, should scare off all but midsize distributors with a strong VOD strategy.