Film Review: Dark Horse

<i>Portrait of the Loser as a Young Chub</i> should be the subtitle of Todd Solondz&#8217;s latest attack against normalcy.

There are total losers walking the Earth, and then there is Abe (Jordan Gelber): fat, socially inept, possessed of an unhealthily negative attitude towards the world and living with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow). He meets Miranda (Selma Blair), who just may be the perfect mate for this desperately lonely, unhappy soul, as she also never left home and is terminally depressed about her failed relationship and life.

Ah, how Todd Solondz loves the disenfranchised! In many ways, Abe is his ultimate creation, even if Dark Horse is a departure from the multi-character works which have made the director’s reputation. Abe’s very hopelessness fuels the movie, and it’s often puckishly amusing to see him completely slack off on the job (which he can do, as Daddy’s his boss), cadge cash from Mom, and go about his mind-numbing days, trying to return an action figure he’s bought for his collection to a snippy store clerk and rage against his more successful brother (Justin Bartha), a doctor, who is bewildered as all he’s ever tried to do is be there for him. His courtship of Miranda is so inept that it makes Ernest Borgnine’s Marty look like Charles Boyer at his suavest. Unfortunately, after a while, as his character shows no signs of development, we lose the fascination he holds for Solondz and the film becomes rather aimless.

There are any number of wryly amusing scenes to pass the time, however, and Solondz has been particularly well-served by a nicely chosen cast. Gelber is utterly convincing and the fact that you don’t entirely despise Abe and indeed almost root for him must be considered a major acting accomplishment. Blair is pretty terrific within the sad constraints of her role and delivers her defining credo with deadpan hilarity: “I gave up my dreams for a literary career, hope, independence. I should just get married and have children.”

Donna Murphy, who has truly sparkled on the Broadway stage in musicals, finally gets a juicy—if small—movie role to sink her choppers into, as Abe’s secretary who always, weirdly, has his back, and a colorful secret identity to boot. She brings some stylish wit to the proceedings which momentarily lifts it out of its calculated doldrums. Walken is—big surprise—weird as Abe’s father, while Farrow, after all those years with Woody Allen, has become quite expert at playing querulous, suffocating Jewish matrons. Aasif Mandvi brings some added verve as Miranda’s erstwhile boyfriend Makmoud, who may have given her hepatitis B. In Solondz’s world, the very mention of a disease like that registers as a punch line. Welcome to the suburban dark side again!