Todd Solondz (Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse) latest release, Dark Horse, is a heartwarming dark comedy that follows a 35-year-old man who still lives with his parents and collects toys and action figures. It is 'dark' in the loosest sense of the word, for while it in no way measures up to the sinister nature of his previous projects, it is still laced with the disaffected tragedy of an outcast that Solondz achieves so well. It is definitely his most mainstream-orientated film, at least on the surface, and at times it is uncertain whether the dark edge that fringes this film exists at all or whether it is simply a hangover from his previous squirm-inducing endeavours that were riddled with rape, incest and paedophilia.
This film is centred around the unlikely pairing of Abe (Jordan Gelber) and Miranda (Selma Blair). The two dysfunctional thirty-somethings are forced together by Abe’s disillusionment and somewhat charming eagerness and Miranda’s personal and professional disasters, which have seen her enter a period of vague life-evaluation and overmedicated haziness. Abe sees the opportunity and grabs it with both hands, asking her to marry him within a week of them meeting. She half-heartedly accepts with the submission that she will “give up self respect” and “just get married and have children”. What follows is a story that is as hilarious as it is tragic and that quickly takes a dive into the downright surreal.
When Solondz’ award-winning film Happiness was released in 1998, it was the title that embodied his cinematic style. Happiness, a deeply ironic choice of title for a film that was anything but, and by a director who, as Robert Ebert described, was someone who “hears the unhappiness in the air and seeks its sources”. Dark Horse works on the same principles. A ‘dark horse’ is, in Jordan Gelber’s own words, “An underdog, but with an edge. It means that the expectations others have for you are low, but you have the potential to wow everybody”. However, Abe never seems to step up to the ‘dark horse’ potential that was projected onto him by his father at a young age. Even his acquisition of a beautiful girl seems accidental, uninspired and oblivious. The love he professes for her is less a love of her per-se and more of an attempt towards normality. He sees her as a chance to live up to the expectation of what one ‘should’ have usually achieved by his age.
The soundtrack is minimal, compiled mostly of Abe’s heavy breathing and slow shuffle, which is contrasted with overly positive cheesy American pop that is often diegetic and cut off mid-lyric. Not only does this add to the films overall weirdness but also renders the 'successful' world crudely glossed-over in the face of Abe’s failures. He still works for his father’s business and deems himself “too old for American Idol”. His older brother Richard’s (Justin Bartha) success and good looks only work to feed Abe’s anger and resentment.
While Dark Horse may lack the controversy of Todd Solondz' previous seminal works, it is nonetheless an affecting story. What at first appears to be your average boy-meets-girl and rise-of-the-underdog scenario soon becomes anything but. The film offers a view of a character and 'relationship' that, on paper, we would all seek to avoid. With intelligence and humour, Solondz manages to bring alive our greatest fears - fears of rejection, fears of a failure to keep up with the high standards of an achievement-fuelled society, and fears of getting old. But he does this in a way that doesn’t render Abe’s character a walking nightmare but a funny onscreen delight. Abe is impulsive, childishly transparent and hopelessly petty. He is also, in short bursts, compassionate. But this is not to say that Solondz conforms to the usual Hollywood portrayal of a funny, cuddly teddy bear kind of a guy. He does not celebrate the themes as portrayed in the film, but observes them from a creepy distance.
Dark Horse is set for theatrical release in the UK on 29th June 2012