CHICAGO – The issue of gender identity, especially for those who are born with a vagueness as to what to call themselves between/beyond boy and girl, has come front and center in the U.S., both with the legalization of gay marriage and the callous repudiation of identity by trying to pass laws dismissing it (the North Carolina “bathroom” laws). The performance companies of The Living Canvas and Nothing Without a Company is currently staging “[Trans]formation,” which presents gender identity art by six performers, who perform most of the play in the nude.
Todd Solondz’s ‘Dark Horse’ Brilliantly Deconstructs Man-Child Pathology
CHICAGO – Todd Solondz has always been prone to making films about people that most filmmakers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. His characters crave love but are the opposite of lovable. They inspire the sort of laughter spawned not from amusement but from discomfort, sadness, and occasionally, recognition. It’s refreshing to see characters utterly devoid of pre-packaged, studio-approved appeal.
In many ways, “Dark Horse” is the morose flip side of Judd Apatow’s lighthearted comedies about overgrown man-children whose arrested development is signified by their large collections of action figures and unfamiliarity with female reproductive organs. These guys don’t have a whole lot going for them, but they’re still able to attract gorgeous women with their neurotic sweetness. Though Apatow’s films are far more insightful than most Hollywood rom-coms, their plot arcs have more in common with escapism than the real world.
With “Dark Horse,” Solondz turns the Apatow formula on its head. The film’s 35-year-old antihero, Abe (Jordan Gelber), has bought into the American illusion that the underdog is always rewarded, and has wasted his life waiting for his Hollywood ending to arrive. His self-confidence is overwhelming, but his ambition is apparently nonexistent. He still hasn’t moved out of the family home, where he is consistently doted upon by his smothering mother, Phyllis (Mia Farrow), while his father, Jackie (Christopher Walken), regards him with catatonic disappointment. Though Abe has landed a desk job at his father’s office, he lacks the drive to complete or even understand his duties, opting instead to have a co-worker, Marie (Donna Murphy), do his job for him. He yearns for his father’s approval, but can’t even put forth the effort to get his spreadsheets done. This non-work ethic is clearly reflected in Abe’s personal life, as he asks a pretty yet sullen woman, Miranda (Selma Blair, reprising her role from Solondz’s “Storytelling”), for her hand in marriage before making any solid attempt to court her. In an overmedicated haze of depression, Miranda sizes up Abe and sees little to her liking, but drifts toward him anyway purely out of desperation. Her reaction their first kiss: “Things could’ve been so much worse.”
Selma Blair and Jordan Gelber star in Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse.
Photo credit: Brainstorm Media
For its first hour, “Dark Horse” brilliantly deconstructs Abe’s “man-child” pathology, exposing the frailties within his good-natured façade and barley concealed rage. Gelber nails the frustration of a man who avoids dealing with his failures by projecting his self-hatred onto others. He can’t stand losing a game of backgammon to his mother, and treats his older, successful brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), with nothing but contempt. One could imagine this character becoming quickly insufferable, but Gelber (known to Broadway fans for his work in “Avenue Q”) is such an inherently endearing actor that he makes viewers root for Abe to come to his senses (Miranda echoes the audience’s sentiments with her line, “I want to want you.”).
Solondz’s ironic use of upbeat pop music is put to perfect use here, as Abe blasts various motivational numbers that reflect his inner psyche at any given moment—we know he’s despondent when his car rides are silent. Though he doesn’t have very many lines, Walken delivers some of his funniest work in years without uttering a sound. When a tardy, ridiculously dressed Abe walks into an office meeting and strains to appear invested in the discussion, Walken’s eyes convey the grim resolve of the farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Another scene-stealer is Jiminy (Tyler Maynard), who Solondz fans may recognize as one of the Sunshine Singers from “Palindromes.” In “Dark Horse,” Jiminy has found work as a maddeningly chipper clerk at Toys “R” Us who’s all too happy to inform Abe that he’s of no help whatsoever.
Unfortunately, the film has the same curious flaw as Mark and Jay Duplass’ low-key charmer, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Both pictures feature underachieving home-bound protagonists who are obsessed with finding meaning in the universe through dates and numbers. For their first two-thirds, these films work perfectly well, but in their final act, they derail. Yet whereas “Jeff” culminated in a forced deus ex machina, “Dark Horse” becomes hopelessly lost in Abe’s fantasy life. Throughout the film, Abe is confronted by imagined versions of family members who bluntly tell him everything they’ve been afraid to say to his face.
Christopher Walken stars in Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse.
Photo credit: Brainstorm Media
Most of these apparitions merely externalize Abe’s own buried belief that he’s a failure, but in the case of Marie, the fantasies become more complex. Her duality as Abe’s conscience and his potential lover is intriguing, but it remains unclear whether her fictional identity in Abe’s mind is in any way related to the actual character. It’s curious how Marie’s vaguely sinister character overtakes the narrative to such a degree that some of the fantasies seem to be taking place in her mind rather than Abe’s. There’s a dash of Buñuelian surrealism in these scenes, as well as echoes of the magical realism that Solondz utilized with far greater success in his under-appreciated masterwork, “Palindromes.” But for viewers that have become involved in Solondz’s characters, the last act feels like a betrayal, as if the director didn’t have enough ideas to stretch the running time to eighty minutes. It feels like Solondz is stalling, but in an odd way, his refusal to fulfill the audience’s narrative expectations appropriately reflects Abe’s refusal to fulfill his potential.
Though the entirety of “Dark Horse” doesn’t quite work, it has haunted me weeks after seeing it, and I suspect that more provocative nuances and details will reveal themselves upon subsequent viewings. While previous Solondz films have dealt with extremely alienating low-lives, such as pedophiles, Gelber’s character hits very close to home, particularly in the modern economic climate. All college graduates who are forced to move back home while searching for financial stability share an unspoken fear that they will end up like Abe. Twentysomethings currently undergoing that awkward transition will find themselves laughing through clenched teeth at Solondz’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Abe’s deeply dysfunctional home life. Abe’s enabling mother may be the worst influence in his life, by far, and Farrow’s mixture of maternal devotion and unseemly tolerance is frighteningly spot-on. As a timely cautionary fable for apathetic man-children, “Dark Horse” could serve as a swift kick in the pants.