"We're all horrible people. Humanity's a fucking cesspool." That's the misanthropic worldview of Abe, the overweight 35-year-old man-child at the center of the new film, Dark Horse. It also describes the philosophy of Abe's creator, the complicated writer-director Todd Solondz, who is known for independent films with uncompromisingly dark themes.
A college dropout, Abe lives at home with his parents, works lazily for his father's real estate company, and collects action figures he buys on eBay. He's defensive about his situation — "It's not like it's nepotism or anything," he tells a prospective date's father about his position. "My father interviewed a lot of people for my job."
Abe believes what his father (Christopher Walken, looking comically sepulchral in a bad toupee) told him when he was a child: that he's a dark horse, destined to succeed against low expectations. His lack of discernible talent belies that prediction, but no matter; Abe's unseemly confidence leads him to propose marriage to Miranda (Selma Blair), a pretty girl he's just met at a wedding. Miranda, who walks around in a fog of chronic depression, accepts, though she admits she's not attracted to Abe. She explains that her ex, Mahmoud (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi) persuaded her that "I should give up on a literary career, hope, ambition or self-respect. I should just get married and have children."
Emboldened by his marriage plans, Abe confronts his dad, whose on-the-job demands he can't meet. He quits his job and threatens to move out of the house, upsetting his gentle, worried mom (Mia Farrow).
Solondz is an atypical indie auteur. His stories of middle-class human misery, Welcome to the Dollhouse, the brilliant Happiness and its sort-of-sequel Life During Wartime, Storytelling and Palindromes delved into taboo themes of rape, pedophilia, abortion and murder, and pushed the boundaries of acceptability in storytelling (one of the meta-themes of Storytelling, which was released with a lurid sex scene censored by a big red box). There is a complexity and deeply felt humanity in Solondz's writing — even the most reprehensible character, like the child rapist/family man in Happiness, is rendered with a measure of sympathy. Dark Horse's Abe is also as pitiable as he is obnoxious; he's just a misguided misfit trying to find some happiness in life. The character's complexity is nicely embodied by the excellent Jordan Gelber.
Dark Horse is being hailed as a departure for Solondz, probably because of its romantic-comedy component and the absence of horrible crimes or perversity. But lest you think Solondz has released his inner Judd Apatow, know that Abe's dreams will be swallowed by the same darkness that defeats anyone in Solondz's world who dares hope for happiness.
Solondz does try something different in this film — a series of surrealistic flights that represent Abe's fantasies, mostly about the secret life of his father's mousy secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy), who is the only person who really understands him. The fantasy sequences, rendered in a stark style reminiscent of the Coen brothers, are the zestiest elements of the film, whose the basic narrative is a little anemic — especially in contrast to Solondz's earlier films, whose mournful pathos is etched indelibly on our memories.