A Todd Solondz movie is largely an in or out proposition. He doesn't make family friendly fare; regularly interrogating social taboos in his films, and there's little to no effort on his part to dumb down or soften his stories for wider acceptance. After scoring a cult following for divisive early works like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, there's been a noticeable drop off in audience numbers and critical support for his subsequent releases. You'd be totally forgiven at this late date for writing Solondz off as a has-been miserablist taking out his angst on both his characters and viewers.
Chances are, if you hold that opinion, you didn't see his last movie, the darkly, funny Life During Wartime, and probably plan on avoiding his latest comedy, Dark Horse. That last move would be a mistake. Straight up, Dark Horse is the best film Solondz has made in over a decade and, without hyperbole, I'd go as far as to label it one of the funniest releases of the year.
Dark Horse takes place, like most all of Solondz' films, in the suburbs. Jordan Gelber plays Abe, a college dropout in his thirties, still living with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and (barely) working at his father's firm. It's safe to say that Abe's a bit of a non-starter, an observation that is only reinforced when contrasted with his brother Richard's (Justin Bartha) success as a physician. Very early in the film, Abe encounters Miranda (Selma Blair); a thoroughly depressed woman with a similar living situation, at a wedding and basically sweet talks a phone number out of her.
An uneasy relationship develops between the two, due chiefly to Abe's persistence and the absurdly positive facade that he adopts whenever Miranda is present. Solondz explores Abe's mood swings through both simple observation and the relentlessly saccharine pop music that enters the soundtrack via Abe's cell phone and the stereo of his comically large, yellow Hummer. This highly obtrusive music serves a dual purpose, working as both an obvious (and hilarious) punchline and as a counterpoint to Abe's unacknowledged and growing angry, depressive state.
As it proceeds, the film ends up moving into areas that aren't necessarily meant to reflect reality as much as comment on internal damage wrought from years of not living up to one's potential. Some audience members might have difficulty taking the leap as the film transitions away from a more literal mode of storytelling. Personally, I wanted to watch Dark Horse a second time as soon as it was over. Solondz doesn't pull punches or make it easy to embrace his work but the humor he spins out of the wretched lives of his characters has a whiff of truth and authenticity that can't be denied.
Dark Horse begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 17th. More info available here.
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