Watching a Todd Solondz film is like walking down a dark alley in a rough neighbourhood: you know you probably won’t enjoy it; there’s a good chance you’ll get mugged, but still you’re perversely curious to see what you might find down there.
Conventional wisdom has it that Solondz’ auterism (autism?) is wearing thin. His recent output is supposed not to have had the same claustrophobic intensity as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. This is certainly true of Dark Horse, a relatively gentle reflection on the passage of time seen through the eyes of Abe, a 30-something live-at-home Long Island loser (Jordan Gelber).
Solondz has wound his neurotic intensity dial back to mere “Larry David” setting: there are no paedophiles, no crank calls and no gruesome masturbation scenes here. Gelber responds by channelling George Costanza: Abe is overweight, balding and affects the petulant mannerisms of an awkward teen. He collects vintage toys, and his bedroom still posts wallpaper and posters from the 1980s.
As if to confirm his social retardation, Abe still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and an impressively toupeed Christopher Walken). As hopeless as each of them is, Abe’s permanently juvenile disposition is no-one’s fault but his own.
At the wrong end of a ghastly wedding reception, Abe gamely strikes up a conversation with a fellow dance floor refugee, Miranda (Selma Blair, for her part channelling Ethel Glum). Miranda is also detesting her evening, but otherwise has nothing at all in common with Abe. Undeterred by her monosyllabic responses and negative body language, through sheer persistence and positivity Abe acquires Miranda’s home phone number. Within a week and without further encouragement, he has proposed marriage. His proposal is just the sort of impulsive idea you’d expect from a hormonally impaired fifth-former.
As could happen only in a universe of Solondz’ devising, after initially refusing, Miranda accepts.
Solondz paints in his usual palette: neurotic suburban vacuity is the order of the day, though his point of focus seems to be nothing more challenging than the observation that we must not let life pass us by. Other than that, it’s difficult to spot the bone Solondz is trying to pick. (One assumes Solondz is trying to pick a bone).
By drawing Abe as such a caricature (really, Jason Alexander should sue for passing off) Solondz’ intended message is undermined: the scenario Dark Horse presents is so ridiculous as to be unrecognisable in the real world (at any rate, beyond the Jewish community of middle America). As such, it doesn’t make a worthwhile mirror to hold up anything against. Compare that, say, with Ricky Gervais’ The Office, where every foible of every character is horribly familiar.
I had a similar reservation about Happiness: there, the hyper-neuroticism would be, well, foreign to pretty much any viewer outside that particular thin socio-economic seam of American life in which Solondz set it. But I dare say Todd Solondz isn’t writing for the rest of the world. For those to whom his patter doesn’t ring true, this film can only function as a comedy for its own sake: a screwball curio.
Dark Horse is an amusing one of those. If properly promoted, it should thereby find a more ready audience than Solondz’ pictures are used to. Selma Blair’s physical comedy (she has little by way of script, but her mannerisms are a delight to behold) together with the sight of Chris Walken in a bad wig (other than one intense stand-off of stares, Walken plays it dead straight) make this well worth a look.
Dark Horse is in cinemas 29th June 2012.
Director: Todd Solondz
Stars: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken
Runtime: 84 min