Jun 13, 2012
For someone as misanthropic as Todd Solondz it is somehow admirable that he keeps making movies. I was not a fan of his last outing, Life During Wartime, a prequel of Happiness, his best movie to date. Dark Horse is slightly better. It is the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a fat, spoiled, obnoxious 35 year-old Jewish man who lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow!) in suburban New Jersey. Abe is rude, ungrateful, full of himself and unbearable. He has a warped sense of self-confidence that masks a huge, unjustified chip on his shoulder. He is the living portrait of grandiose entitlement. His mother dotes on him, his father is bitterly disappointed in him (with good reason), and of course, he has a younger brother who is a handsome, successful doctor. Abe gets the idea that he can propose marriage to Miranda, (Selma Blair), whom he meets while both mope at an exaggeratedly happy Jewish wedding (is there any other kind?). Miranda is depressed and also lives with her parents. Abe surmises correctly he stands half a chance with her -- she seems to have given up on life altogether. Because miserable people are magnets for more misery, she accepts.
Still in full command of subversion, Solondz' sets out to upend our expectations of romantic comedy love: that Abe will change, that Miranda will coax half a redeeming quality in him. Little of this happens. Abe changes a bit, propelled more than anything by his own grand sense of fantasy. At least in his mind he has conversations that hint at self-awareness, but this doesn't mean that his behavior changes when he snaps out of them.
Solondz' brand of humor elicits sour laughter that dies in the throat. Now, I give him props for sticking to his guns. This is his jaundiced view of this country and it's good to have him around to rain bitterness on our parade of moronic escapism and fake pieties. But there is something flat and lifeless about his movies. He is cruel to his characters, who tend to have just one dimension, like cartoons.
Now, people have come to expect perversity and provocation from Solondz and the buzz is that Dark Horse is disappointingly sweet and mild for him. I disagree. The fact that there are no pedophiles or any of his other usual perverts doesn't make this movie any less discomfiting. The elephant in the room, what nobody is talking about in the reviews I've read, is the Jewishness of the main character. Solondz likes to push buttons and he certainly does here with a Jewish-American male who is a monster of self-absorption. In one of the many fantasies he has, he is described both as a tightwad and a freeloader. He is the kind of prick that demands his money back because a toy came with a scratch. There is a wonderful speech in the film; actually, the one crucial moment of lucidity where there is a ray of hope for Abe, in which Marie, Abe's confidante, (Donna Murphy) reads him the riot act and tells him he is the child of absolute privilege and pampering but he still complains (I paraphrase). It's food for thought, this extremely critical view, not only of American suburbia with its hidden, deadly anomie, but also of American Jewishness. Apparently, Solondz is not as comfortable in his Jewish skin as other Jewish comedy purveyors, like Judd Apatow or even Larry David (a genius at being despicable and right at the same time). With Solondz, being Jewish is not a pretty sight. Is this fair assessment or Jewish self-loathing on his part? Perhaps a little bit of both. I wonder why everyone insists on ignoring this very interesting aspect of the film.
Solondz' extremely sour humor could have benefited from casting a more genial shlub. Think of Jonah Hill, who in Cyrus has proven he can go dark and creepy, or Seth Rogen, Josh Gad, or even someone more volatile, like Zach Galifianakis. Any of them has more verve in the nail of their pinky than Gelber, as he has been directed here. But this would run contrary to Solondz's trademark punishing bleakness. Yet even monsters need to have some modicum of charm. Otherwise, why should we care? Why make someone utterly odious? If there is anything endearing about Abe is that at least he gives it a try, in his own overbearing, deeply mistaken way. In Solondz's universe this is pretty heroic.
I can watch Christopher Walken do nothing for three hours and be enormously entertained. Here he's great at just staring coldly at his son, with a priceless sustained deadpan glare of disappointment and failure. But why cast him and Mia Farrow (also very game) as two Jewish parents? Are there not enough Jewish actors in the Tri-state area? I'm not of the school that believes you have to have a DNA test to play an ethnic character. But Solondz already makes much of the fact that Abe is Jewish. There is always a star of David or a poster of Israel or a Jewish themed t-shirt in the frame, so why not go for it?
In the end, Dark Horse is intermittently funny but it feels pretty lifeless, despite a bubbly score of cheesy pop songs. The humor feels labored and heavy-hearted. It's like Portnoy's Complaint without the wild sense of mischief, without the guts to really provoke a Jewish heart attack. A total downer, as usual.