“Wistful” is not a word one would ordinarily use to describe a Todd Solondz production, but Dark Horse—the 51-year-old filmmaker’s fifth feature since his 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse put him on the indie map with its hilariously bleak vision of junior-high-school hell—is an exercise in compassionate misanthropy.
A low-key geek show by Solondz standards, Dark Horse is, as the title suggests, itself something of a mystery—at least emotionally. Were it not so sad, this portrait of a loser might almost be an extended situation comedy or a confessional one-man show. Framed by a wedding and a funeral, both Jewish of course, steeped in failure and disappointment, the movie is funny but not particularly laughable.
Thirty-five-year-old Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an ungainly, ill-tempered schlub, an overgrown kid who lives at home, trolls eBay for collectable action figures, drives a canary yellow Hummer, and works for his dad, a strip-mall developer with a fondness for racetrack metaphors like “front runner” and “dark horse.” Like his sourpuss father (Christopher Walken), Abe is alternately irate and brooding. Their filial relationship is complicated by a fearful, doting mother (Mia Farrow) and there’s also a smug, successful younger brother (Justin Bartha), who has long since fled the family nest. The set-up and thematics unavoidably recall Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, although in this case the doomed failure is not dad, and, although often ridiculous, Abe is anything but “well liked.”
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Solondz’s low-man character has a defensive sense of his own special destiny. “I never dance,” he proudly tells Miranda (Selma Blair) by way of an introduction in the movie’s frenetic first scene. Like Abe, this unsmiling, near-catatonic beauty is a wall-flower amid the celebratory simcha disco. She appears to have no interest in conversation—or in him—yet he manages to extract her phone number, perhaps because she can think of no other way to put him off. Calling for a date, which she hasn’t the will to avoid, he shows up at her house and impetuously asks her to marry him. Depressed, weirdly passive, and possibly over-medicated, she’s too startled and distracted to say no.
As it turns out, Miranda has also regressed to her childhood room. In that sense, she and Abe are ill-matched soul mates—Dark Horse would seem to have echoes of Paddy Chayefsky’s heartwarming Marty or the mental-hospital love story David and Lisa. But given the likelihood that an actual Abe might embrace Seth Rogen as his ideal, the movie pours a bucket of cold water on the fevered beauty-and-the-beast fantasy inherent in that ultimate Rogen vehicle, Knocked Up. If Rogen could bed Katherine Heigl, why shouldn’t charmless Abe woo Miranda? “I’m too old for American Idol,” he complains to her by way of explaining his social situation.
Solondz, on the other hand, is a man who feels duty-bound to puncture illusions. In his estrangement from the lies of polite society, the filmmaker is the cinematic equivalent of a ‘60s sick comic, an attitude that more than a few have found off-putting. The New Yorker declared Welcome to the Dollhouse to be “hateful.” The relentlessly miserablist comedy Happiness (1998) was dumped by its original distributor when the suits at Universal objected to the movie’s allegedly too sympathetic depiction of a pedophile. Writing more in sadness than anger, A.O. Scott declared that Palindromes (2004), Solondz’s most problematic satire of American sexual anxieties, had “no artistic interest beyond the limitless ugliness of humanity.”
In the 1980s, Solondz was regarded as a prodigy at NYU film; when I interviewed him some years ago, he told me that, after his student film (a high-school psychodrama starring the director himself) garnered simultaneous three-picture deals at two studios, his classmates and teachers thought he’d be the next Woody Allen. Far from it: Acutely self-conscious, Solondz seems to genuinely ponder the guilt-feelings and alienation that have been Allen’s career-long riffs—although in Solondz-world the operative terms might more exactly be “creepiness” and “embarrassment.” Characterized by a low-affect neutrality that’s only slightly warmer than Miranda’s, his films invite discomfited viewers to laugh at shame and pain, and then perhaps wonder why they are laughing.
With its lovingly detailed caricatures, fondness for extreme scenarios, and snarky nerd’s-eye view of ordinary misery, cinema Solondz is a successor to the underground comix of the 1970s; in particular, the artist’s anguished, diagrammatic detachment has affinities with that of the graphic novelist Dan Clowes, who created Ghost World as well as the poster for Happiness. Alienated members of dysfunctional families are Solondz’s meat, if not his obsession. Like fellow son of New Jersey (and sometime sick comic) Philip Roth, his oeuvre is one of recurring themes (the fruitless search for love), pet locations (bland restaurants in sterile suburban malls), and constant types (clueless parents, hostile siblings, lonely children, pariahs); like Roth, Solondz recycles his characters. Members of the Weiner family, introduced in Welcome to the Dollhouse, resurfaced in Palindromes and his last feature Life During Wartime (2009), which was itself a sequel to Happiness.
Miranda, as is made clear in the Dark Horse credits, is an older version of Vi, the college creative-writing student Blair played in Solondz’s leanest, meanest movie, Storytelling (2001), who is introduced coupling with a cerebral palsied classmate in a cinderblock dorm-room, subsequently guilt-tripped into abusive sex with her contemptuous African-American creative writing teacher, and then, after turning the experience into a story, attacked by a classmate as “a spoiled suburban white girl with a Benetton complex.”
The Solondz mode is uninflected hysteria: In his deliberate compositions, studied use of reaction shots, and deadpan line-readings, as well as his fascination with anomie and angst, he is a true descendant of R.W. Fassbinder (at the height of his influence when Solondz was in film school). This functional style allows Solondz’s characters plenty of room in the frame even as they are trapped in the cage of their own particular destiny. As a Job story, Dark Horse is reminiscent in some ways of the Coen brothers’ A Simple Man—but Solondz is less punitive and more obviously tormented than the Coens. He’s not superior to his characters, although he certainly understands that suffering is not necessarily ennobling.
“You should just face the truth,” the irately self-pitying Abe at one point yells at his mother. “We’re all horrible people. Humanity is a cesspool.” I don’t think he’s speaking for his creator so much as articulating the Solondzian sense of the human condition. Set up like the superhero tchotchkes and Simpsons toys in Abe’s bedroom, the artist’s creatures are static. Their situation is fixed. Solondz is a fatalist who, like Heraclitus, believes that character is destiny. Having the upbeat pop exhortation to “Be Who You Wanna Be” play under Dark Horse’s end credits is his idea of a punch line, the satiric equivalent of Miller’s eulogy for Loman, “The man didn’t know who he was. … He had the wrong dream.”
Playing with the notion of mass culture as reified yearning, Dark Horse is grounded in ambient bursts of TV sitcoms and peppy pop, blockbuster movies and generic stars. In a way, the film strives to be both more universal and more subjective than previous Solondz productions. Although not as complex as Life During Wartime, Dark Horse is nonetheless punctuated by nightmares and hallucinations, all belonging to Abe, weirdly Oedipal fantasies that revolve around his father’s mousy, sympathetic secretary (Donna Murphy). The saddest of these, occurring after Abe (again like Willy Loman) drives his car off the road, has the son revisiting his childhood family home back when he was still his father’s “dark horse.”
So, does the filmmaker have compassion or contempt for his characters? Is it possible to feel both? Dark Horse is neither Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons nor Miller’s Death of a Salesman. That Solondz declines to give Abe a measure of tragic grandeur makes the point no less forcefully: Attention must be paid, even to schlubs.
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J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.