Todd Solondz writes and directs Dark Horse (2011), in competition at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. It tells the story of kidult Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 30-something avid collector of toys and action figures. Though initially portrayed as a comic character – driving his banana-coloured Hummer whilst listening to what sounds like an American Idol hit list at full blast – we come to see him as something more tragic and pathetic.
Balding, spoilt and easily angered, Abe is your average teen trapped in a corpulent adult body, living in the suburbs with his mum and dad (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and working for the family firm whilst his hated brother Richard (Justin Bartha) gets to be a handsome doctor in California. He can’t even do his humdrum job properly, continually exasperating his dad by showing up late in trackies and would-be gangsta accessories, and not getting his work done on time.
Dark Horse opens at a wedding reception and we watch the painful sight of Abe flirting with his attractive and seemingly unavailable dinner companion, Miranda (Selma Blair). However, he manages to arrange a date and we discover that Miranda’s situation is not much better than Abe’s: living in the suburbs back in her childhood room and apparently heavily medicated; a true dark horse.
Not only that: Miranda’s parents are even more stilted and dull than Abe’s. The two ‘youngsters’ embark on a whirlwind romance – that is, if an uncomfortable one-way conversation and a date at your parents’ house can be considered a ‘romance’ – and Abe asks Miranda to marry him. It would perhaps be an understatement to confess that things don’t quite pan out as Abe intends.
Unlike his previous work, in which the focus is on various characters, Dark Horse is all about Abe, which – seeing as he is a self-centred, egotistical character – is just as it should be. Only at the end of the film do we see another character in a daydream reverie, contemplating her own alternative take on a less satisfying reality. Though Dark Horse offers plenty of laughs, in no way is this a film in the wake of Hollywood man-child comedies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005). There’s no easy resolution to Abe’s situation and the audience is not really rooting for him to get the girl and the happy ending.
Despite great performances from Jordan Gelber and the rest of the cast – as well as Solondz’s tender and sympathetic touch – this melancholic comedy “could triumph, but might not”. Last year’s winner was an American indie (Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere ) and it’s unlikely that the Biennale will follow the same route two years running. But you never know with Venice: Solondz’s effort just might be the dark horse of the festival.
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