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Dark Horse (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"That's My Oy!"
1 stars

For any artist whose work is based largely on shock and provocation, there comes a time when those tricks begin to wear out there welcome and they have to decide whether they want to change their approach and allow their work to evolve into new areas or if they would prefer to continue doing the same old thing as a tacit admission that they never had much of anything else to offer in the first place. In the case of cinematic provocateur Todd Solondz, it is a question that he has been wrestling with since he burst on the scene (following a little-seen debut feature of which no one speaks) with his controversial indie hits "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1996) and "Happiness" (1998), films which combined a bleak view of the world, mordant dark humor and startling visuals and narrative developments into squirmy cinematic packages that were embraced by critics who really enjoy using the word "transgressive" in their reviews. Unfortunately for him and his dwindling number of defenders, his subsequent efforts, the loathsome "Storytelling," the inane "Palindromes" and the meh "Life During Wartime" haven't had anything to offer but increasingly desperate attempts to provoke his viewers via ham-handed stylistic devices (such as the gimmick in "Palindromes" of having the central character, a 12-year-old girl, played by a range of different people ranging from a heavy-set black woman to Jennifer Jason Leigh), hackneyed shock imagery (like the graphic and racially-charged sex scene in "Storytelling" that became a minor scandal du jour when it was covered up with red bars in order to get around the threat of a NC-17 rating) and storylines that increasingly resorted on callbacks to his earlier films or idiotic plot developments. (Suffice it to say, if you have written a screenplay in which hypnotism is a key element and it isn't a fantasy, it may be a sign that a rewrite is required.)

With his latest effort, "Dark Horse," the good news is that Solondz has apparently finally decided that he has no interest in continuing the patterns set by his previous films--this makes sense when you consider that his once-edgy material has now become so mainstreamed that two of the most notorious elements of "Happiness" just turned up as straightforward gags in "That's My Boy." The bad news is that he clearly hasn't figured out what he wants to replace them with and the result is an exceptionally dull exercise in artistic water-treading that is as simultaneously unpleasant and uninteresting as its central character. That character is Abe (Jordan Gelber) and even in the grand pantheon of losers, louts and loons that Solondz has offered up over the years, he is a doozy. Many will describe him as a real-life version of the Comic Book Guy character from "The Simpsons" but that would be grievously unfair to Comic Book Guy because whatever his flaws and foibles, he has occasionally shown glimmers of self-awareness and mild dignity that have apparently managed to elude Abe over the years. He is pushing 40, overweight and still lives at home with his barely contained father (Christopher Walken) and his easily cowed and weirdly coiffed mother (Mia Farrow) in a room that is jam-packed with pop-culture ephemera--all in the original packaging,of course. During the day, he farts around at his dad's real estate office while his father's secretary (Donna Murphy), who has an inexplicable soft spot for the lug, pretty much does all of Abe's work for him so that he doesn't get into trouble.

As for his personal life, it seems to consist entirely of tooling around in his ridiculous, canary-yellow Hummer while blaring ridiculously peppy pop tunes (which I suspect are meant to be taking ironically), complaining at the local toy store that his latest purchase wasn't in mint condition and playing backgammon with his mother and demanding instant payment when she loses to him. Of the multitudes of unpleasantness that essentially defines his being, the least attractive of them is his unceasing and largely inexplicable belief, one that he shares with many other people that he, despite his lack of motivation, intelligence or discernible effort, is nevertheless destined for greatness and is often espouses at length that while some people in this world are obvious winners, he prides himself on being a dark horse whose inevitable success will be all the sweeter because of its unexpectedness. Abe is the kind of guy who, if sat behind you at a movie, would inspire you to not only change seats but auditoriums, even if the only other thing playing was "Rock of Ages."

The story proper begins at a wedding where Abe finds himself having a meet-not-entirely-cute with fellow single Miranda (Selma Blair), who appears to be in the advanced stages of shell-shock--not that Abe actually notices this as he blathers on and on about how dancing just isn't his thing and yes, about how he is a dark horse and all that nonsense. So profound is Miranda's apparent depression and despair that when Abe asks her out on a date, she accepts. That even a presumably overmedicated zombie like Miranda would stoop to spending any amount of time with a boor/bore like Abe is already stretching the bounds of credulity but to make things even more implausible, Abe pauses midway through their first incredibly awkward date to ask her in all sincerity to marry him, presumably because it is the longest that he has ever been in the presence of a female not related to him by blood and he wants to make the most of it. To top it all off, she accepts, even though she admits that she is doing so largely as a final acknowledgement that her hopes and dreams for a literary career and personal happiness are dead. This would seems like an odd way to begin a relationship but none of this, nor Miranda's admission the she has hepatitis B, is enough to deter Abe or his barely-formed plans to begin a life together with someone with whom he shares virtually nothing in common. Without going into too much detail, let me simply say that things don't go quite the way that Abe expects and things take a turn for the bleak before going bad even by the standards of a Todd Solondz film.

The idea of Solondz tackling the winning-is-everything mentality that so many people hinge their lives and happiness on sounds intriguing enough, especially when applied to his usual themes of loneliness, isolation and how the sad sacks of the world are continually being crushed and destroyed by the hateful and stupid boors that they have the misfortune to be surrounded by on a daily basis. The problem with "Dark Horse" is that Solondz doesn't seem to have any idea of what he wants to say about this particular phenomenon other than to simply present an astonishingly clueless and graceless example of such a person and serve him up in such a way so that his audience can condescendingly sneer at this character's behavior without ever being forced to recognize any link between his delusions of grandeur and the ones that they themselves may also maintain in their own lives. As a result, the film is nothing more than a repetitive bore that feels like a repository of half-formed sketches than a cohesive storyline that becomes increasingly difficult to sit through once it becomes evident that Solondz's once-fascinating brand of genuine misanthropy has curdled into ordinary unpleasantness.

Towards the end, the film breaks down into a series of increasingly hallucinatory scenes and at first, there is the sense that Solondz might finally be pulling things together at last in order to make some kind of point about the self-proclaimed dark horse coming to the long-awaited realization that he is not as special as he thinks he is but after a while, this extended sequence proves to be as aimless as everything else that has preceded it.Even the one aspect of Solondz's cinematic style that his detractors are willing to concede as being interesting--his deft handling of his actors--comes up shot here. As Abe, Jordan Gelber is certainly as obnoxious as one might hope or fear but since that is the only shading that Solondz allows him to display, he quickly wears out his welcome and since he is front and center in virtually every scene, the proceedings eventually become even more painful than presumably intended. As for the like of Blair, Walken and Farrow, they have likewise been given but one note apiece for their characters and not even the power of their inherent personalities are enough to blow through the torpor into anything memorable.

Those hardy viewers who actually make it to the end of "Dark Horse" will notice that Selma Blair is listed as playing "Miranda (formerly Vi)." Vi, as you may recall, is the name of the pretentious wannabe writer that Blair played in "Storytelling" and between that and the reference that Miranda makes to her failed literary career, there is the suggestion that it is meant to tie into that film in the same way that "Palindromes" and "Life During Wartime" respectively with "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." Now I for one hated ever single minute of "Storytelling" for reasons too long and intricate to go into here but at least that found Solondz committed to his craft and trying to say something through his work. By comparison, "Dark Horse" merely feels like the work of a filmmaker with nothing of interest to say and no idea of how to say it. The peculiar end result is a film that feels as if it was made by someone who has no real interest in anything that he is doing and that feeling of outright ennui is likely to be felt by anyone watching it as well.

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originally posted: 06/22/12 11:55:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
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  08-Jun-2012 (NR)
  DVD: 13-Nov-2012


  DVD: 13-Nov-2012

Directed by
  Todd Solondz

Written by
  Todd Solondz

  Justin Bartha
  Selma Blair
  Christopher Walken
  Donna Murphy
  Aasif Mandvi
  Mia Farrow

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