Solondz serves tragedy with a twist in ‘Dark Horse’ 

click to enlarge Both sad and funny: Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair are excellent as the tragic-comic couple at the center of “Dark Horse.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Both sad and funny: Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair are excellent as the tragic-comic couple at the center of “Dark Horse.”

Whatever combination of personal, familial, suburban and human-species pathology is responsible for the warped and wounded characters found in Todd Solondz’s films, it translates into original, challenging, funny cinema.

Sometimes, it yields something affectingly sad, too. All these results occur in “Dark Horse,” the writer-director’s latest unsentimental picture of middle-class disquiet.

Romance meets arrested development in this gentler-than-usual but characteristically bleak offering from Solondz, whose films include the dysfunction tapestry “Happiness.”

As with many smart comedies, Solondz’s satires are tragedies with twists. Here, the setting is again a New Jersey landscape that the happiness dispensers seem to have forgotten.

This time, the story focuses on one messed-up character, and the damage is largely self-caused.

Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 30-something college dropout, lives with his fed-up father (Christopher Walken) and indulging mother (Mia Farrow). He drives a Hummer and wears silly T-shirts. He oozes resentment over the success of his physician brother (Justin Bartha). He shops for action toys on eBay at his place of employment (Dad’s firm) while a colleague, Marie (Donna Murphy), does his spreadsheet assignments.

Conscious enough to want new horizons, Abe pursues Miranda (Selma Blair), a medicated depressive he meets at a wedding reception in a passage Solondz presents with deadpan flair.

Miranda, shattered by personal failure, has low aspirations. After ensuring that Abe’s marriage proposal isn’t some sort of “performance art,” she accepts.

The transition to adulthood, which includes an unexpected challenge in the form of Miranda’s ex-boyfriend (Aasif Mandvi), proves more than Abe can handle, however. Fantasies and dreams usurp reality.

Abe is indeed a risky creation, and by making him the emotional center, Solondz asks viewers to invest interest in the welfare of a selfish, hostile, spoiled, childish, lazy narcissist.  

But as sickness-in-suburbia stories go, the movie is a worthy ride, and as a Solondz concoction, it is fresh and satisfying.

Like Solondz’s previous films, though it’s not an emotional knockout, “Dark Horse” effectively creates a credible universe and, amid bleakness, some human spark and comic nuggets. “Oh, my God, that wasn’t horrible,” remarks Miranda, after Abe kisses her.

The performances shine, with Gelber (from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) making Abe a compelling force of frustration and self-immobilization — a truly tragicomic personification of arrested development issues that Hollywood paints so frivolously.

Blair’s Miranda is so impressive in her sadness; perhaps Solondz will offer a more developed version of this character in a future movie. The same goes for Walken, as a disappointed dad. Murphy’s Marie, a sexual presence in Abe’s dreams, is a revelation.

REVIEW: Dark Horse ★★★

  • Starring Jordan Gelber,
  • Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy
  • Written and directed by Todd Solondz
  • Not rated
  • Running time 1 hour, 25 minutes
  • Note: Solondz appears at 7:35 and 10 p.m. screenings today at Embarcadero Center Cinema, S.F.; 5:40 and 7:50 p.m. Saturday at Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley; 3 p.m. Saturday at Camera Cinemas, San Jose; and 7 p.m. Sunday at Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

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Anita Katz

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