How do you solve a problem like Todd Solondz? He’s one of the most unique and dark comedy minds in American filmmaking, yet most people just don’t know what to make of him. Sure Welcome to the Dollhouse speaks to the mocked high school freak and geek inside us all, but since then his work has been met with increasing critical confusion and audience apathy. It all comes down to the director’s choice of subject matter, cranking out black comedies about lost souls and societal rejects that plays their darkest traits for harsh laughs in a way some find amusing and just as many find mean spirited or judgmental. However, a little time spent observing the filmmaker himself shows he’s very much a more stable of version of his characters and he clearly loves and strives to understand them regardless of their significant problems. Also, nothing tends to get harsher comedic treatment in Solondzland than the few glimpses of “normal” people, hypnotized by trash culture and too wrapped up in their apparent happiness to notice the world. At his best, the director finds a tone something like warmhearted nihilism and his latest film Dark Horse is one of his most accessible…well, at first anyways.
It was probably inevitable that at some point Solondz would get around to making his version of the current man-child comedy trend that kicked off with The 40 Year Old Virgin. There’s an inherent sadness to that increasingly common personality type that doesn’t register in an Apatow production. Solondz’s arrested adolescent is Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 35 year old who lives with his parents, works (poorly) in his father’s (Christopher Walken) real estate company, obsessively collects action figures, drives a giant hummer, throws childish temper tantrums and essentially does whatever he can to distance himself from reality. In the first scene Abe meets the morose Miranda (Selma Blair, reprising her role from Solondz’s Storytelling) at a wedding, he asks her to dance, but she says no. He then asks her for a date and somehow confuses refusal for acceptance. Eventually he forces a date, immediately proposes marriage and somehow she agrees. Now, most people would take that series of events as a warning sign for a terrible prospective girlfriend, but Abe isn’t too good at picking up on how the world works and as film goes on Soldondz digs deeper and deeper into his twisted fantasy life.
On a certain level it’s business as usual for Solondz, finding a new collection of damaged souls in the sad land of suburbia. Yet there’s something slightly different going on here as well. The filmmaker’s perspective isn’t as detached, he’s more aligned with Abe’s point of view than some previous characters. Though on many levels the man is a sadsack lost cause, he has a relentless and irrational optimism that’s kind of charming. He’s aware that his life is a bit of a mess, yet he’s got a remarkable ability to lie to himself and confidently believe everything will be ok. For most of the film, Soldonz plays this affectation as amusing comedic disconnect, but he’s well aware it’s a major part of the Abe’s significant life problems. As the movie marches on, the filmmaker subtly and masterfully slides into Abe’s delusions. At first this takes the form of his father’s assistant popping up at moments of crisis to offer advice. Then angry family members start appearing in his car and gradually it becomes difficult to tell if anything we’re watching is real.
The film slips into the gentle surrealist mode that Solondz established in Palindromes and his Happiness sequel Life During Wartime, only this time it feels more explicitly justified as being Abe’s fractured connection to reality rather than a stylistic choice. As his fantasies take over the film, the project becomes less accessible, yet in a very enigmatic way. Solondz presents the manchid phenomenon as a sickness rather than an affectation and in allowing the film to slip into Abe’s pov, he shows just how damaged these minds can be. Along the way he gets his typically stellar performances from the ensemble cast, with Jordan Gelber taking on his first lead role filled with knowing humor and sadness, Selma Blair portraying crippling depression, Christopher Walken digging out deadpan expressions to play as close to a normal human being as possible, and Mia Farrow’s inherent sweetness coming through in an overbearing mother incapable of seeing her mistakes. Dark Horse will probably play only to Solondz’s usual cult audience, but a far easier bitter pill to swallow than his last two efforts, so hopefully a few people who abandoned him darkness will come back. Even though the guy understandably plays his stories to a small crowd, Solondz is one of the most dependable and insightful dark humorists in film. He’s perpetually underrated although I suppose that’s somewhat appropriate given the ignored and lonely people those films are about.