How pathetic is the lead character of Todd Solondz’s new movie? And what music cue will be used to underline the point? Those are the questions expected of Dark Horse, and here are the answers: He’s in his late 30s, lives at home, works for his father, drives an absurd yellow Hummer, and collects action figures—a practice that leads to many belligerent outbursts, both real and imagined, directed at a Toys R Us customer-service flack. And it’s all set to synthetic pop songs with affirmative lines like “Now is the time to reach for the sky” and “Today is going to be the perfect day.” But no one seems more keenly aware of Solondz’s habits than the director himself; his last four films have deconstructed themselves, like a repurposed garment now fraying at the seams. To the bifurcation of Storytelling, the multiple actresses for the same role in Palindromes, and the entirely recast Happiness semi-sequel Life During Wartime, Dark Horse adds fantasy sequences where the hero’s doubts and desires are exposed and held up for questioning. To a small extent, the concept puts enough of a shine on the material to make it seem new again.
It also helps that Jordan Gelber, as the titular wounded “dark horse,” beautifully plays a character who approaches the world like an overgrown child—naïve and sweetly exuberant at times, but also given to temper tantrums. While at a wedding, Gelber meets the sullen Selma Blair, another thirtysomething who lives with her parents, mainly because she’s paralyzed by depression. She reluctantly gives him her phone number, but winds up bowing to his persistence, which leads to a couple of tremendously awkward encounters and an ill-considered marriage proposal. Meanwhile, Gelber’s struggles working for his dad (Christopher Walken) threaten his living situation and renew a bitter rivalry with his much more successful little brother (Justin Bartha).
The scenes between Gelber and Blair are the strongest in Dark Horse, because they form a bond not out of shared interests or passion, but a weary kind of compromise. (Blair on their first kiss: “Oh my God, that wasn’t horrible.”) Solondz’s characteristic bluntness betrays him more when he deals with the characters surrounding them, who are every bit as narrow as his hero imagines them to be, and a subplot involving a venereal disease throws the film far off track. But there are comic grace notes throughout Dark Horse—a deadpan line-reading here (“I had a long Skype with Mahmoud,” goes one non sequitur), a visual joke there (the sound of a errant soda can clanking offscreen may be the film’s funniest moment)—and the fantasy scenes both get into Gelber’s head and reveal a movie in conversation with itself. The question remains: How much longer can Solondz continue that conversation?