King of cruel comedy Todd Solondz returns to the arthouse cinema screen with Dark Horse, a surprisingly lightweight and ultimately unsatisfying take on unhappy, neurotic middle America, thwarted aspirations and going nowhere fast.
The Dark Horse in question is the inexorably white and stoutly Abe, played excellently by rotund caucasian Jordan Gelber. Living with his parents in their wood paneled cabana home, and approaching middle age like it’s tomorrow’s dinner; he is surprisingly busy for someone with no life. Spending his days looking busy at his father’s real estate firm, collecting rare action figures, cheating his mother out of backgammon winnings and driving around in his grotesque yellow Hummer, with all the trimmings, he’s every young nerd’s nightmare future self. Abe finds solace in arrested development when he meets the equally morose Miranda (Solondz’ regular Selma Blair) at a wedding after-party. Sitting sheepishly at a dinner table onlooking the festivities, the two strike up an unlikely and partly reluctant romance.
A central theme of Dark Horse is the sickly concoction of dreams with the mundanity of real life. For Abe, his life is only interesting for him, and also for us, when he’s catching some shut-eye and his dreams can take over. Heavily dosed on anti-depressants, Miranda has lost the ability to feel anything in either realm, apathetic towards her soon-to-be husband and their uncertain future. All the while, the two’s ambivalence is humorously counter-balanced by an ironic soundtrack of ghastly and saccharine pap pop.
Similarly to that surreal darling David Lynch, director Todd Solondz has carved out a filmmaking career exploring the dark depths of suburban America that undoubtedly exist, yet no one is willing to talk about. This style has lead to criticism that he’s a bit of a one trick pony, going full circle in 2009’s Life During Wartime, an unsuccessful but relatively enjoyable remake of his 1998 breakthrough Happiness. Feeling the strain of this predicament, Dark Horse is a lightweight affair; a Todd Solondz film on ketamine where you can’t help but sit around anxiously waiting for it all to turn delectably sour. Even with revelations of Miranda’s ex-boyfriend dreamboat Mahmoud back in the frame and Abe dropping a cancer bomb, Dark Horse isn’t the black beauty one expects nor craves from American oddball.