by David Lamble
What's it like to experience the latest Todd Solondz bitter satire Dark Horse? Imagine an 85-minute pilot for a Seinfeld reboot that focused – no, make that obsessed – over the juvenile fantasies, delusional ambitions and revenge-filled rants of a dumpy, balding George Costanza. Imagine a George, moreover, who has never left his boyhood bedroom, who works for his morose, overbearing dad, and who endures the faux sympathy of a mom whose ditzy, fashion-challenged persona would have been a perfect fit on the 1970s soap spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
MH, MH famously, deliciously for its devotees, featured an episode where a man drowned face-down in a bowl of Mary's homemade chicken soup. The chicken-soup demise would have made a perfectly suitable exit for Dark Horse 's bitter, balding, not-so-jolly, fat protagonist Abe (a fine big-screen premiere for Jordan Gelber) if the God who created him, writer/director Solondz, hadn't fashioned a more sardonic fate.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Abe's fate and his fumbling attempts to avoid it should be set against a career cavalcade of flawed if thoroughly human Solondz characters. They begin with Welcome to the Dollhouse's much-bullied high school wallflower Dawn Wiener and continue with a sad gay boy whose whiny attempts to come out to and make it with his school's most popular boy, Scooby (a classic blinkered-teen turn from Mark Weber), in Solondz's Storytelling are greeted with the bored rejoinder, "We know, we know!"
A consumer advisory: those who have resisted earlier Solondz critical favorites Happiness, Palindromes and Life During Wartime due to well-advertised "unsavory" plot elements should consider this less-spicy remix their invitation to the party. As the director himself has observed, this time, "There's no rape, there's no child molestation, there's no masturbation, and then I thought, 'Oh my God, why didn't I think of this years ago?'" Or as Solondz put it even more tartly, "I'm Judd Apatow's dark side."
Aside from the dark humor that goes with the territory as an increasingly agitated Abe lashes out at family and workmates, true Solondz fans have usually appreciated him most for those unexpectedly moving scenes where two very unlikely characters forge a brief, genuine, if extremely uncomfortable human connection. Like the dark-night-of-the-soul conversation in Happiness where a prison-bound serial-pedophile dad actually communicates a true, non-creepy love for his now thoroughly confused son.
Dark Horse's epiphany speech comes quite unexpectedly as Abe finds himself wooing a depressed younger woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), who has as many or more coping issues, and who, for a brief moment at least, considers Abe's marriage proposal a plausible if improbable romantic safe harbor. The scene begins with Abe uncharacteristically offering some sage advice to the over-medicated Miranda.
"You know, not that I'm an expert in these things, but maybe you should think about taking less medication."
"Please tell me something, and I need you to be honest, are you for real?"
"And you're not being ironic, like performance art or something?"
"Well, I suppose it's true that most people would describe me as having an ironic sense of humor, but I'm definitely not into performance art or anything like that, no way!"
"And you were serious about what you said last time?"
"Even though we hardly –"
"I know all I need to know. Do you think you might want –?"
"I want to want you!"
"That's enough for me!"
"I had a long Skype with Mahmoud, my ex, and I told him all about you: how different you are from what I'm used to, all the downside to everything, and he agrees I should stop trying to slit my wrists, give up on a literary career, give up on hope, ambition, success, independence, self-respect. I should just get married, have children."
After a long pause, they kiss.
"Oh my God, that wasn't horrible! Things could have been so much worse!"
This being a Todd Solondz joint, things do get worse, and in ways I won't even try to communicate lest I intrude on the thrill of discovering them in the dark. Suffice it to say that the final portion of Abe's story is lodged increasingly in his own fevered dreams and delusions. There are scenes so surreal I'm still not entirely sure what happened, but they held me. My favorite scene involves a hallucinatory episode I call "Justin and the Cougar," as Abe stumbles upon an older, bitterly funny office colleague having a sexual fling with the "office twink," a charmingly boyish, elfin figure delightfully essayed by the same Zachary Booth who's so sublime as the drug-addled boyfriend in Ira Sachs' incendiary Frameline hit Keep the Lights On.
Yet another Solondz film becomes a kind of destination resort for a talented ensemble, including Mia Farrow's "killing-him-softly mom" – boy, have we missed her since her Woody Allen breakup – and a fiendishly grumpy Christopher Walken, who's been acing the over-the-top dad roles ever since the Steven Spielberg/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration Catch Me If You Can.
With a lead who enters and exits scenes in a yellow Hummer that's the Batmobile of his still-childish fantasies, Abe becomes perhaps the most poignant of Solondz's not-so-lovable losers, as if TV's George Costanza were to transform from cuddly, irascible buffoon into a comic/tragic figure who requires a bigger screen to exit his vale of tears. (Opens Friday.)