Like most indie-film geeks from the '80s and '90s, I had a love affair with Todd Solondz. Welcome to the Dollhouse was refreshing, painful and funny, and his follow-up, Happiness, was cringe-inducing, uncomfortably amusing and absolutely fearless.
So, what happened? I chalk it up to being like those moments in life when you realize the person you've been fooling around with is a nut-job. I didn't like Storytelling (2001). I wasn't a huge fan of Palindromes (2004), and by the time Solondz got around to Life During Wartime (2009), the Happiness sequel that featured different actors in some of the recurring roles (hey, a few of the original actors got really famous in the intervening years), I felt like his inspection of the seamy underbelly of suburban America was getting icky. Everyone has a secret or two to hide, but it had started to feel as though Solondz didn't like the characters he was creating.
I'd started to write him off, I guess. But you know how it is—once in a while you run into the crazy person with whom you have history, and, lo and behold, they've gotten their act together. With that in mind, I fell for Solondz's new film, Dark Horse, which explores similar territory as the rest of his canon but does so with an interesting new methodology. It screens for one week only at the Ken Cinema, starting Friday, July 27.
Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a pudgy 30-something man-child who spends the film's first few minutes at a wedding, making excuses for why he's not dancing and doing his best to pry a phone number out of Miranda (Selma Blair), a zoned-out chick who really should be out of his league. But she's kind of nuts, and she's both thrilled and overwhelmed that someone's paying her any kind of attention. It fits that that should come from Abe, who's just so awful. He drives a reprehensible car and sponges off of his parents, still living in the room he grew up in, which remains stuffed with action figures, and barely doing any work at the company that his father (Christopher Walken) owns, becoming easily irate when any responsibility is foisted upon him. He's an obnoxious schnook, and from his view, everything is always someone else's fault.
You'd hate this guy. And yet, somehow, as the film progresses, Solondz and Gelber make you feel for him, desperately. Abe, you see, proposes to Miranda on the first date, and as their lives start to intertwine, Solondz moves from the character's external life to his internal one. This will likely leave you pondering what was and wasn't real when the film ends, but it also shows how sad and unpleasant Abe's life is.
Most people fantasize about positive events, but in Abe's fantasy world, people tell him all the terrible things that he really thinks about himself. What we learn is that, despite all the bluster, Abe believes what we, the audience, think—that he's an ungrateful brat, and he always has been. It's one thing, though, to feel awful about oneself; it's another to imagine your parents or your successful brother (Justin Bartha) telling you those things.
Abe even transforms his father's long-suffering secretary, Marie (the wonderful Donna Murphy), into a seductive cougar whose sudden transformation is impressive and shocking to Abe, and even more depressing when she starts spouting unpleasant truths he'd rather not face.
Abe is a brilliant blend of chutzpah, ego, self-confidence, desperate insecurity and brutal self-loathing. He's like a Long Island Ignatius J. Reilly, the character from John Kennedy Toole's tremendous novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. At one point, Abe says that we all need to face the truth, which, to him, is that we're all horrible people. At the very least, Abe is a pretty horrible person, and yet he's a horrible person whom you somehow come to care for. That's a tough trick to pull off, but somehow, someway, Solondz has done it.