Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a tubby underachiever in his 30s who lives with his parents, sleeping in a bedroom full of action figures, movie posters and other emblems of interminable childhood. In other words he is, in the context of recent American cinema, not unusual. But Dark Horse is a Todd Solondz movie, which means, among other things, that Abe is neither a sweet Apatovian schlub nor a stoner saint like the title character in Mark and Jay Duplass’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home. He is, instead, an emblem of loneliness and failure, whose cocoon of self-delusion and misplaced vanity is carefully dismantled by the sharp, remorseless tweezers of Solondz’s sensibility.
Abe is not pleasant company. At home with his parents — a stiff, humorless dad played by Christopher Walken and a simpering, smothering mom played by Mia Farrow — he whines and rages his way through daily storms of entitled petulance. Abe works for his father, a real estate developer, or at least spends time at the office, seething and daydreaming behind his computer screen while Marie, the office manager (Donna Murphy), covers for him and his eager cousin curries favor with the boss. The bright yellow Hummer Abe drives is an obvious symbol of his wounded, bloated ego. His courtship of Miranda (Selma Blair), a mopey young woman who also lives at home in a state of arrested, medicated quasi-adolescence, is frequently excruciating to watch because it exposes just how misplaced and bizarre his self-confidence is. What a jerk, you can’t help but conclude. What a loser. Why doesn’t he know it?
But Solondz brilliantly — triumphantly — turns this impression on its head, transforming what might have been an exercise in easy satirical cruelty into a tremendously moving argument for the necessity of compassion. Again and again — in the ’90s indie touchstones Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, and more recently in Life During Wartime — this director has blurred the boundary between misanthropy and humanism. He surveys the human geography of his native suburbia with what looks like unbridled disgust but is actually an unquenchable and steadfast love. Dark Horse may be his warmest, most generous movie, but it also casts a beam of empathy backward, illuminating the baffled, benighted, icky souls who have populated Solondz’s universe from the start.
Can anyone love Abe? Is he worthy — or capable — of love? These are serious, life-and-death questions, and Solondz refuses to make them easy. He favors lurid, borderline-ugly colors and finds a tone that somehow erases the distinction between deadpan comedy and overwrought melodrama. His eye for social detail is merciless and exact. Miranda and Abe’s families are, by any objective demographic measure, nearly identical, but the tiny differences that separate them, evident in the architecture and décor of their respective houses, imply an unbridgeable chasm of taste. Those differences are further explored in an encounter between Abe and Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi), Miranda’s supercilious, ostentatiously cosmopolitan ex-boyfriend. This guy thinks he’s so much better than Abe, and the joke is that the feeling is entirely mutual. It has to be, since in this world you are nobody unless you are better than somebody else. And if you aren’t, then you better be able to find someone to blame.
That may be one thing Abe is genuinely good at. His father’s toughness, his mother’s softness, the apparently effortless success of his younger brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), a doctor — all of these are elements in what Abe sees as a global conspiracy to keep him down. The title, Dark Horse, refers to his idea of himself as one of life’s secret winners, preparing a glorious come-from-behind victory that will be his revenge on all the people who have dared to underestimate him.
Solondz puts Abe’s fantasies of glory on screen, increasing their frequency until the end of the movie becomes a Buñuelian cascade of dreams within dreams. (The film culminates in one of the most eloquent, heartbreaking shots I have seen in a very long time.) But the film’s purpose is not to revel in Abe’s disillusionment or ridicule his longings. It aims, instead, to cast a skeptical eye on the brutality and complacency of a society that ruthlessly sorts its members into winners and losers.
I’m going to go out on a limb a bit here. Looking at Abe, I saw the shadow of Willy Loman. Dark Horse and Death of a Salesman are both stories of a family (implicitly Jewish) with a mother, father and two boys in the thrall of — and threatened by — the American dream. The theme of both stories is the ideology of success and its casualties; the ways the expectation of material comfort becomes a spiritual quest and a psychological hazard. Solondz’s film is, on the surface, a comedy, preferring quick, barbed exchanges to thundering speeches. But like Salesman, its departures from realism have the effect of enlarging the narrow, unremarkable lives that are its focus, and by extension the audience’s sense of what those lives might mean. Attention — tentative, half-repulsed, hopelessly ambivalent — must be paid.