Monday 25 June 2012

Late bloomer: "Dark Horse"

It may well be that with 2009's Life During Wartime, his apologia for Happiness, Todd Solondz felt as though he'd concluded a particular chapter in his filmmaking career, and that he could move on accordingly. His latest, Dark Horse, initially appears more emollient yet, as though the filmmaker had plans to make something with broad audience appeal: it even begins at a wedding, to the accompaniment of upbeat pop music, although it transpires that the writer-director's interest resides, as usual, with those at the margins at this particular event, busy as they are having themselves no fun whatsoever.

A shattering of the man-boy psyche so revered elsewhere in contemporary American comedy, Dark Horse comes to feel something like an indie remake of 2006's Failure to Launch, albeit with a protagonist who doesn't have Matthew McConaughey's charisma and confidence, and might therefore be more credibly left behind by his contemporaries. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a doughy, deluded thirtysomething still living at home with his overbearing parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken), working a spreadsheet-shuffling job for his pa, and spending much of his income on action figures and replica toys; even his preferred mode of transportation - a canary-yellow jeep - looks like something Hasbro might have manufactured.

He ploughs on regardless, perking himself up with inanely inspirational pop, hiding his frustration behind a facade of boyish bluster, and insisting - despite his early rejection by Miranda (Selma Blair), who had the misfortune to be seated next to Abe at the wedding, and is the recipient-victim of his latest schoolboy crush - that he remains "the frontrunner type, with certain qualities of the dark horse". It remains unclear whether Miranda, herself a stay-at-home type, has considered these in deciding to (in her own words) abandon her literary career, her hopes and ambitions, her independence and self-respect, in order to pledge her troth to Abe, in the absence of any better options; nor whether an older colleague of Abe's (Donna Murphy) has these qualities in mind in deciding to make our hero the latest target of her cougaring.

If, at first glance, Solondz looks to have shucked off some of the ambiguity of his earlier works - their ability to provoke heated debate about authorial tone, and just who they were getting at, exactly - his comedy's becoming more deft: he knows he can get a laugh just from the framing of his mismatched lovers, or from blurring out the logo of a toy-store behemoth who clearly decided it wasn't a good idea to associate themselves too closely with the Solondz brand. He looks, too, to be growing softer with age: we notice the tenderness directed into Miranda and Abe's first kiss, even if it's immediately undercut by the former's sparing appraisal of same ("Oh my God, that wasn't terrible... it could have been so much worse.")

One might nevertheless have cause to question whether the move into the middle ground is entirely beneficial for this director, or indeed for Solondz newcomers. Dark Horse apes the bright, appealing colours of the modern romcom, but without the mocking flamboyance of, say, a John Waters; audiences expecting a laugh riot are going to be confronted with a lot of character business in which the only truly funny line is something like "you're such a post-Marxist
cliché". I can't be sure how these newbies are going to handle the mental and physical disintegrations of the film's second half, wherein characters begin to flit in and out of Abe's unravelling life like imaginary friends, or spectres; the unintiated may be better sticking with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a not dissimilar delayed coming-of-age tale that clung to good, honest dick jokes.

Still - given the borderline-autistic nature of some of his past work - it's encouraging that Solondz is making the effort to reach out, and he's getting demonstrably better around people, including the cast of actors who here appear to mesh seamlessly with his own once singular sensibilities: Blair's sad eyes are like a whole Solondz boxset in themselves, and Murphy's transformation from meek secretary to seducer once she's "off the payroll", is a mini-tour de force akin to Heather Matarazzo's Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Charlotte Rampling's venomous pick-up in Life During Wartime. Maybe the nail-bomb sharpness of the director's more incendiary films has gone, but Solondz remains an acute social observer, and on this evidence, may yet have a career ahead of him as a psychodramatist of some repute - an Ibsen of the American suburbs. 

Dark Horse opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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