By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The makers of Dark Horse may see it as just that, but don’t look for it in the winner’s circle.
That’s because this under-the-radar (and, presumably, ironically titled) offbeat movie stumbles badly soon after coming out of the starting gate.
Dark Horse is a small-scale comedy-drama about arrested development that suffers itself from something similar.
It comes from writer-director Todd Solondz, whose reputation rests mainly on the quality of two fine films he made in the late 1990s, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness.
What Dark Horse shares with those two features are its suburban New Jersey setting; its interest in lonely outsiders and deprivation of one sort or another; its portrait of desire and despair; its embrace of discomfort, both on the screen and in the audience; and its idiosyncratic style.
But whereas those two quirky features managed to fascinate and disturb, Dark Horse feels incomplete and lacks follow-through to an irritating degree, with plot strands abandoned all over the place like so many empty soft-drink cups at a carnival.
Jordan Gelber plays Abe Wertheimer, the title character, a hostile, underachieving, socially awkward, thirtysomething action-figure collector and college dropout who still lives with his parents (a critical dad played by Christopher Walken and a smothering mom played by Mia Farrow, both written and played on the cusp of grotesque caricature).
Abe also works for his father at his industrial real estate firm — which he angrily resents. He also resents and envies his older brother, Richard, a successful physician played by Justin Bartha.
Selma Blair is Miranda, an insecure and heavily medicated depressive whom Abe meets at a wedding. He is immediately smitten, pursues her, woos her, and proposes marriage.
Amazingly, she agrees.
As the new, sad-sack-squared couple begins their life together, Abe fantasizes, guiltily and obsessively, about an older woman, played by Donna Murphy, Abe’s father’s secretary, who it would appear is out to seduce him.
Abe’s dreams and fantasies — at least, we think that that’s what they are — then continue to intrude on the slim narrative during the second half of the film without shedding much light on anything.
Solondz’s immersion in the cinema of discomfort, when it’s clicking, produces moments that you can hardly bear to watch even as you find yourself not able to look away. But Dark Horse reins in its excess to such a self-defeating degree, you can bear to watch and you can look away.
His is a distinctive voice, but not necessarily an edifying one. And the danger of focusing on a joyless character is that you could end up with a joyless movie.
Ahem. It’s just not easy to feel invested in characters when we sense that even their creator doesn’t like them.
In addition, this particular and particularly joyless movie stops instead of ending, offering a final scene that doesn’t add up and seems to be a cheat, leaving viewers dissatisfied or confused, or both.
So we’ll arrest the development of 2 stars out of 4 for the drained-of-joy dramedy, Dark Horse, a movie we exit feeling not just finished with but saddled with.