Dark Horse: Venice Film Review

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While Selma Blair delivers an appealing performance, the film's extreme negativity is sometimes laughable, writes THR Film Critic Todd McCarthy.

After the provocative narrative, stylistic and political gambits of Todd Solondz's last film, Life During Wartime, the far more simple and straightforward tale related in Dark Horse feels like something fished out of the writer-director's desk drawer. Never less than watchable and loaded with trademark negativity so extreme it's sometimes funny, the new film is nonetheless saddled with a protagonist so narrowly and unlikably presented that, in the end, he doesn't seem worth the time devoted to him. His work commercially challenged at the best of times, this relatively minor entry from Solondz faces a greater-than-usual struggle in the theatrical arena.

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An overweight thirtysomething schlub desperately lacking social skills, Abe (Jordan Gelber) pushes through his little corner of the world, belly pointing the way, as an affront to the virtues of human decency and accomplishment. Although he gets the phone number of a quiet woman, Miranda (Selma Blair) he meets at the Jewish wedding that opens the picture, Abe seems clueless as to his own cluelessness; he lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow), hates his successful doctor brother (Justin Bartha), maintains an office at his father's business but doesn't do anything, collects children's plastic action figures and burns lots of gas in his yellow Hummer. In a way, he's like Paddy Chayevsky's Marty, a pathetic little big guy who's not getting any younger and needs a woman and a life. But dramatically, he's the other side of the coin: Instead of being portrayed sensitively and sympathetically, he's displayed as a useless slug who has nothing to offer.

“You should just face the truth,” he exclaims to his concerned mother, who asks, “What is the truth?” “That we're all terrible people!,” retorts Abe, and that's the way these bad taste New York-area folks come off. Abe is angry most of the time, except when he speaks with Miranda, who also lives with her parents, seems terminally depressed and morose and is afflicted with hepatitis B in the bargain.

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Miranda's acceptance of Abe's brash marriage proposal cues a forced social gathering of future in-laws so strained it makes Woody Allen's encounter with Diane Keaton's family in Annie Hall (also involving Walken) look like the party of the year; for her part, Miranda beholds her betrothed's bedroom, which is dominated by kids' toys and a World Book set. Miranda does have an ex, Makmoud (Aasif Mondvi), from Dubai, whom she is keen for Abe to meet but, when they do, Abe promptly slugs him. Good old Abe, you can always count on him to do the right thing.

Alternating between a naïve solicitude toward Miranda and ferocious hostility toward virtually everyone else, Abe is not very good company to begin with and becomes a tiresome character when it's apparent he's not destined to acquire further insight or self-knowledge. More than most of the director's films, Dark Horse is centered on one character rather than on an ensemble, to diminished returns.

But beyond the belligerent Abe, what limits interest here is the directness of the script's presentation of a warped, stunted personality; what you see in the first few minutes is what you get, whereas the twisty narratives and outrageous revelations of Solondz's best films acrue to sometimes astonishingly perverse and bracingly nasty effect. Dark Horse is more of a sketch and the main character might have better served as one of several in a group, rather than being imposed on the audience full-time.

One can scarcely fault Gelber, as he fully and forcefully delivers the overbearing qualities called for by his director. It might also be noted that, should the young Harvey Weinstein ever become a character in a film, Gelber, at least physically, could be the guy to play him. The most appealing performance, however, comes from Blair; at first scarcely able to speak, her physically and psychologically impaired Miranda generates growing sympathy and surprise. Walken, Farrow, Mondvi, Bartha and, as a vampy coworker who comes on to Abe (at least in his imagination), Donna Murphy all click effectively in caricature mode.

Musical and design aspects are consistently in a mocking register.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production: Double Hope Films
Sales: Goldcrest Films
Cast: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Justin Bartha, Mia Farrow, Donna Murphy, Christopher Walken, Zachary Booth, Aasif Mondvi
Director: Todd Solondz
Screenwriter: Todd Solondz
Producers: Ted Hope, Derrick Tseng
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Alex DiGerlando
Editor: Kevin Messman
85 minutes