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June 29, 2013

Dark Horse

by Franz Patrick


Dark Horse (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Abe (Jordan Gelber), over thirty years of age and an avid vintage toy collector, still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) and has no intention of moving out any time soon. He is relatively content with where he is even though his romantic life can use a bit of spark. Opportunity presents itself when he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a self-proclaimed failed writer, at a wedding. Although they have absolutely no chemistry upon first contact, Abe feels she is right for him so he proposes marriage on their first date. To his surprise, she eventually accepts. However, like Abe, Miranda has her share of problems, those that ought not be taken lightly.

Written and directed by Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” is an increasingly bizarre specimen, sometimes examining its protagonist with a level of detachment so cold, it can put a frost to his blind, fiery passion to prove to everyone that he is good enough to be considered an equal. Gelber’s performance in portraying a character that reeks desperation holds a fragile magnetism.

On one hand, I found myself wanting to root for Abe because he is so hard on himself, often comparing his perceived lack of success to his father, a man who has established and has since run his own business, and brother (Justin Bartha), a doctor. On the other hand, I wanted to shake and yell at him to wake up, stop being so lazy, and move out of his parents’ house. It is clear that being around them is not healthy considering that there is always tension in the house. It is very awkward that Abe is both his father’s son as well as an employee who does not pull his own weight in the company.

The brief and awkward interactions between parents and child has a few interesting layers. The screenplay takes on social and personal issues, often simultaneously, from the generational gap to what it means to be–or perhaps the archetype of–a responsible, independent adult in America. Even though the issues that are touched upon do not receive equal time or focus necessary to drill deeply enough until the satire and irony reach a saturation point, the implications pack sufficient sting–darkly comic in nature–to get us to think about the protagonist’s motivations outside of his actions as well as what we might have done differently if we were in his situation.

While the writer-director almost treats Abe like a punching bag, Gelber plays Abe with vulnerability, capable of kindness and selfishness, changing it up as swiftly as winds changing direction. The contrast between approaches from behind and in front of the camera often hints at the sheer potential of the material.

Unfortunately, Blair’s performance is so over-the-top, watching her move and listening to her speak is like watching a major car accident on repeat. I felt her trying to emote so consistently that the hint of irony that her character is supposed to possess is buried under her overacting. She is supposed to ooze self-pity, perhaps we are even supposed to dislike her character, but I felt no joy in her performance. I was more interested in the relationship between Abe and Marie (Donna Murphy), the company’s secretary, due to Murphy’s deranged and energetic performance. Since there is a danger to Marie that Miranda lacks, why does Abe find Miranda more alluring?

“Dark Horse” is not as incisive as it should have been given a few limitations in front of the camera. The trickiest thing about movies mostly composed of very short scenes is that everything in one scene has to be good or else it feels noticeably insufficient. About half of the picture consists of interactions between Abe and Miranda. The latter struggles to be as genuinely interesting as the former.

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