Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Dark Horse is the first film in a while to leave me thinking, “What did I just see?” With only one prior brush with writer/director Todd Solondz’s distinct worldview, this post-credits confusion may simply be the norm, but I don’t recall full-on bewilderment after 1998’s Happiness. Beyond belief creepiness, sure, but after a coherent, well-developed story where even the fantasy sequences worked. No such luck with Solondz’s latest effort, which haphazardly blends these two realms, a notable shame considering the delusional bliss of its first hour.
Like an overweight, mid-‘30s Napoleon Dynamite, Abe (Jordan Gelber) brims with superiority and confidence, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He lives at home in New Jersey with his mom (Mia Farrow) and dad (Christopher Walken), the latter of whom is also his boss at a real estate firm. Each day, Abe puts on a hip t-shirt or football jersey, drives his bright yellow Hummer to work, and spends the day cruising the internet for action figures. When he feels like it, he takes a break and heads to the movies or Toys “R” Us, where his vehicle is the only one in the parking lot. Somehow, he’s yet to be fired.
At a wedding, he meets Miranda (Selma Blair, looking even more listless than usual) and gets her number. She lives three hours away, an insignificant detail to him, and at the end of their first “date” (which she forgets), he proposes and encourages her to think it over. Though they don’t look it, the two are a fairly reasonable match. They both live at home, have had their dreams dashed (he wanted to be a singer, she wanted a literary career), and have been in therapy. A week later, in a fit of depression, she summons him and, checking that his offer is truly sincere, accepts.
Throughout these scenes, Dark Horse cruises along on its amusing, awkward wavelength. Trapped behind glass in their own lonely world, Solondz’s characters exist at a distance, spouting dry dialogue whose inflections and timing are far more humorous than the words themselves (which are rarely out for laughs). Bereft of an instrumental score and other post-production layers, the film is reliant upon the characters, their words, and their actions. As such, it takes the players and scenarios of a Judd Apatow comedy, cranks up the melancholy, and removes the humorous friends (Abe doesn’t have any) and redeeming qualities (ditto). That may sound unappetizing, and it is on some level, but these are the characters on which Solondz has chosen to focus, and his decidedly blunt approach is both gutsy and intriguing.
Where the film falls apart is in the convergence of Abe’s real and fantasy worlds. What begins as an occasional imagined intrusion by office secretary Marie (Donna Murphy) gradually turns to full-blown crossover. Instead of simply reminding him of neglected work, now a suddenly saucy and wealthy Marie swoops in whenever a crisis occurs, whisking him away in her Ferrari to her modern architecture home. As Abe wrestles with a deep secret from Miranda and butts heads with his dad, his mom and California doctor brother (Justin Bartha) join in, popping up while he’s driving the Hummer, and the film quickly loses its way.
While Dark Horse’s first hour successfully blurs Abe’s two existences, the wacky final act tumbles into nothingness, nearly obliterating the fond memories of the prior scenes. These latter sequences recall David Lynch at his incoherent worst, though without the silver lining of artistic flourishes. Then there’s the film’s final shot, a potential doozy that suggests the fantasies may belong to someone else. The possibility is nearly reason to go back and revisit the film with that slant in mind, but by that point, enough vapid nuttiness has arisen that the revelation doesn’t matter. Even at its best, Dark Horse isn’t the sort of film that warrants multiple viewings. It barely warrants a single one.
Dark Horse is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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