Writer-director Todd Solondz (2010's "Life During Wartime
") is fascinated by quirky characters lurking on the fringe of society, and who could blame him? After all, what makes for better conflict: a smooth operator who has everything going his way, or an introverted schlub trying desperately to fit in and be accepted? "Dark Horse" is less sexually explicit than Solondz's norm and also free of some of his more extreme past protagoniststhink Dylan Baker's tortured child molester in 1998's "Happiness
"but that doesn't make it a sunnier movie. True to form for the auteur, its discomforting laughs are as black and painful as its cries for help, the fine line between satire and tragedy blurring throughout.
35-year-old Abe (Jordan Gelber) still lives at home with his parents and is miserable working for his hard-nosed father Jackie (Christopher Walken) at a corporate development company. He is constantly reminded of how successful his younger brother Richard (Justin Bartha), a handsome doctor, is, and wants nothing more than a significant other that will love him the way he knows he's capable of loving. Abe's best chance at this is with the subdued Miranda (Selma Blair), whom he meets at a wedding. She agrees to a date with him, but can't help that she's not attracted to him. "I want to want you," Miranda tells him in one scene. "That's enough for me," Abe replies, his other options numbered. As these two embark on an offbeat relationship, a secret from Miranda's past will send Abe on a downward spiral from which there may be no return.
A slight, occasionally gimmicky (there are a few too many fantasy interludes in the third act), but still poignant character study, "Dark Horse" trains its focus on a grown man stuck in arrested development. He's not the easiest guy to love, what with his bad temperament when he doesn't get his way, but Jordan Gelber (2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
") makes him not only real, but sympathetic as he drives around in his yellow Hummer listening to inspirational pop songs, dreaming of the day when people will look up torather than down onhim. Lending solid support, Mia Farrow (2008's "Be Kind Rewind
") is touching as Abe's caring mother Phyllis and Donna Murphy (2010's "Tangled
") wonderfully plays different layers as Marie, a soft-hearted office assistant. Reprising her role from 2001's controversial "Storytelling," Selma Blair (2008's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army
") is deliciously deadpan as Miranda (formerly 'Vi'), though it really does help to be familiar with what happened to her character in the aforementioned film in order to understand the sad place she's ended up some ten years later. "Dark Horse" is a hair too brief at 84 minutes to gain the breadth or impact it deserves, but Todd Solondz nevertheless sees and cares and loves his characters in all of their faults and eccentricities. Perhaps the day will come when he allows them a happy ending that doesn't literally involve a "happy ending."