Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy, Justin Bartha, Aasif Mandvi, Zachary Booth, Tyler Maynard, Peter McRobbie, Mary Joy, Di Quon, Lee Wilkof, Melisa Young, Daniel Genalo
Written by: Todd Solondz
Directed by: Todd Solondz
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86
Date: 09/05/2011

Dark Horse (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Toy Boxed

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dark Horse is Todd Solondz's sixth feature film -- not counting his early debut Fear, Anxiety & Depression, which he has apparently suppressed -- and I think it's one of his best.

There are two reasons for this. It's the first time Solondz has concentrated on a single protagonist since his breakout film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. (Palindromes was focused on a single protagonist, but played by several different actresses, a conceit that served to fragment the character.) Additionally, Dark Horse uses dream logic to tell its story, rather than harsh, miserable reality, which allows for more humor and emotional resonance, and less distance. Solondz began dabbling with non-reality in his last film, Life During Wartime, which included a ghostly figure, and it seems like a good fit.

Dark Horse tells the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a grown, overweight misfit who lives with his parents and works at his father's office. He's a loudmouth and a coward, never once taking responsibility for anything and quick to blame others for all his misfortunes. He collects toys, and we see him bidding on expensive "collector's items" on company time and a company computer.

At a wedding, he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a beautiful but troubled woman, and begins a campaign to win her. Her defenses are down, and she agrees to Abe's marriage proposal, although she eventually confesses she has a venereal disease. (Apparently, Blair is meant to be reprising her character "Vi" from Solondz's film Storytelling.) Abe also has a competitive relationship with his more successful and handsome brother Richard (Justin Bartha), though Abe maintains that he's "taller."

At this point, his father's secretary, the older but beautiful Marie (Donna Murphy) begins appearing to him. In some early scenes, it appears that she is actually speaking to him, such as secretly helping him with his workload at the office, or having lunch with him. But as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that her appearances are fantasy, or dreams. It's unclear why Solondz chooses this particular character as his mouthpiece, but maybe because she's a midway point between Abe and his father, or a stand-in for all other females.

I don't want to go any further, except to say that Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken are excellent as Abe's mother and father, and that Gelber himself deserves -- and will not receive -- award consideration for his complex, repulsive, and simultaneously appealing performance. The film's design is endlessly fascinating, with its bold, hopeful colors, Abe's huge, wasteful vehicle, and his penchant for idiotic pop music.

But overall, though Dark Horse is disturbing and funny like most Solondz pictures, it's also mystifyingly touching; it moves into totally unexpected places. For example, though I would never want to meet or spend any time with Abe, I feel like I understand him and empathize with him. And I keep thinking about him. That alone is a monumental achievement.
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