DARK HORSE B+
USA (86 mi) 2011 d: Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz is not for everyone, a director who is literally obsessed with being an ironicist, someone who takes irony to the extreme, nearly inventing a special vocabulary for his films which couldn’t express greater contempt for human nature, but then here he surprises you with a flair for something beautifully unrealized, suggesting there is goodness in the possibility of what might have happened, as opposed to what does, which is an unusual approach. In some of his films, like HAPPINESS (1998), the pretentiously artificialized and lighthearted mocking tone in dealing with such serious subject matter as rape and pedophilia is so hatefully obnoxious, especially with that breezy elevator music that passes for a musical soundtrack, it’s sure to divide audiences and cause a commotion in the movie theater afterwards, as viewers may come to blows in their fierce opinions about the merits or worthlessness of the movie. While this is easily his most accessible film, it is grounded in the wretched miserablism of the lead character, the overweight Jordan Gelber as Abe, a mid 30’s guy still living at home with his parents, working at his father’s business, who has been protected and provided for all his life so that he’s never had to learn how to take care of himself, remaining stuck in adolescence. He has a near personality disorder, as he spends his life in the meaningless endeavor of collecting action figures while complaining about the rude habits of others without realizing what a malcontented blowhard he is himself, dedicating every breath of his life to none other than himself, showing little interest, much less compassion, for others. If he wasn’t such a total mess, we might otherwise just ignore him, but his continual moaning about the deficiencies of others is so painfully elevated to a comically exaggerated dramatic extreme that it defies belief, becoming a delusional and dysfunctional caricature of a man on the edge who finds everybody else worthless.
Adding to this portrait of dysfunction are his parents, the overly affectionate mother, Mia Farrow, the picture of goodness and saintliness, and the unruffled and emotionally detached business entrepreneur father, Christopher Walken, who spends all his time checking his various financial interests, where every little detail is devoted to improving his business, while at home he and his wife sit on the sofa and watch mindless TV. When Abe comes and goes, he’s barely even aware that his parents exist, spending most of his time alone in his room fantasizing about what a miserable world it is outside. The cast itself, however, is worth the price of admission, as the way they play off one another is priceless, where it’s like watching live theater, where each one is pitch perfect in their role. It’s played straight, not for laughs, where laughing is optional, as the absurd tone is so deliberately dry and often deadpan that it stops in its tracks any developing emotional drama, as the bluntness of the language is so peculiar that one is continually taken aback, often asking, did they really say that? Using pop tunes as a stand-in for supposed happiness, clearly this is a line of demarcation that has already been breached, where Abe is continually alone in his misery, down in the dumps on the dark side, where he has no reason whatsoever to feel cheerful. At an opening wedding sequence, there is a long pan shot of dancers out on the floor, expressing a kind of merriment not seen anywhere else in the film, where off to the side is Abe sitting alone, while nearby is the even more dour looking Miranda, Selma Blair, who appears in a perpetual depressive state, likely induced by psychotropic medicine. Miranda’s level of consciousness could almost be described as a walking coma. Abe, however, decides to hit on her for her phone number, where she is so easily distracted that all she can really express are the first few digits, as the rest is beyond her capacity, but she continually tries in earnest in a delightfully extended scene that literally goes nowhere but is instead stuck in a state of mental paralysis.
When Abe actually shows up to her home, she can barely even remember the guy, but within minutes he proposes marriage. Much of the emotional aftermath is shown in a recurring theme of car sequences, as he repeatedly arrives at his parents house alone at night, or he arrives at a near empty Toys “R” Us store parking lot with the actual store name always blurred out of focus, or he’s being driven by his father’s low key, nondescript secretary, Donna Murphy, a different creature “off the clock” in her souped up sports car, where the revving sound of the motor is a higher pitch, but she often appears out of nowhere like a dark angel pulling him out of jams, saving his career at work, offering emotional consolation in her modernistic bachelor pad of a home, where she turns on the amorous sounds of Ben Webster playing Ben Webster - When I Fall in Love - YouTube (4:58), but Abe’s too overwhelmed by the disaster that is his life to notice. Things never go Abe’s way, as even when they do, something worse happens to make sure he’s never rewarded, where everything he dreams of in his misanthrope existence eventually comes back to bite him in the ass, taking that Shakespearean pound of flesh where he can least afford it, leaving him a perpetually sorry sight for a human being. Many of the dramatic twists and turns play out like a sketch on TV’s Saturday Night Live, where there’s a crude aspect to the writing and acting, always raw and off center, but also strangely intimate and personal. The comic, absurdist tone is all but absent by the finale, which is a master of understatement. This film has one of the most chilling endings on record, as the casual silliness takes an unexpected turn towards serious, where suddenly, devoid of dialogue, there’s a profound silence that couldn’t be more memorably eloquent, yet the drama continues in an unexpected form. Solondz has really made a one-of-a-kind film, where the anti-humanist diatribe is crudely offensive, yet uncommonly on the mark, expressed with such a degree of caricature exaggeration and absurd artificiality that it’s highly theatrical, making the best use of such a top notch cast, ending with a kind of poetry rarely seen in American cinema anymore.