As the credits roll on Todd Solondz's newest film Dark Horse, the sunshiny tones of Michael Kisur's "Who You Wanna Be" come up. Kisur, backed by a chorus and reassuring piano music, sings: "Step into your life, you can turn it around / You can be who you want, you can be who you wanna be (yeah, yeah, yeah)." It's an ironic conclusion to the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 30-something man-child who works for his father (Christopher Walken) at a job he hates, fills his bedroom in his parents' house with expensive Thundercats action figures, and resents his successful younger brother, a doctor (Justin Bartha).
Abe hates everyone and everything around him, seething at a disinterested clerk who won't let him return an opened action figure at Toys 'R Us. At the same time, he's clearly desperate for a change in his life, illustrated in his insistent interest in Miranda (Selma Blair), a failed writer who also lives with her parents. She's too passive to reject Abe, but when her weird ex-boyfriend (Aasif Mandvi) reminds her that Abe and having kids is a better option than focusing on her failed dreams or attempting suicide, she agrees to marry Abe (making sure to tell him her decision-making process first). Abe is taken aback, but willing to roll with it: "That's enough for me!"
Solondz takes a little while to find his footing. The film jumps right into the action without setting any particular tone, and Abe is particularly aggressive in the first ten or twenty minutes of the film, which will distance viewers from the film. However, Solondz eventually locates an interesting inner-monologue style of storytelling to depict Abe's internal turmoil, in which Mom (Mia Farrow) and dad's temptress secretary Marie (Donna Murphy) can pop in and talk to Abe at any moment. Through these moments, Solondz appears to sympathize with Abe's state of arrested development, picking at Abe's various inferiority complexes.
At the same time, Dark Horse is cynical, taking a faint glee in stepping on Abe's tiny dreams at every opportunity. Perhaps Abe doesn't deserve to succeed (he is an asshole, after all), but it's malicious of Solondz to make us care about his plight, then repeatedly yank the rug from under him. The deck may be cosmically stacked against him, but Solondz often gets distracted by the appeal of twisting the knife rather than playing each of the character's trials and tribulations for pitch-black laughs.
By the time the film's ending rolls around, Solondz has lost himself a little in a web of misanthropy and disillusionment. Abe's fate and the moments leading up to it have a certain comic bite, but they don't quite add up to any sort of point to his suffering, or any further emotional insight onto what the viewer is meant to make of it all. The film's final shot evokes a faint twinge of melancholy, but Solondz immediately undercuts it with Kisur's optimistic music, suggesting that Abe is nothing more than a loser who just couldn't stick it. If Welcome to the Dollhouse and Storytelling had some empathy for its twisted characters, Dark Horse only does so in order to laugh at their failures.
Virgil Films offers Dark Horse with the poster art of a silver necklace bearing the title on it (in the film, the necklace has Abe's name on it), over a pink polo and a tuft of chest hair. I'm not sure it suggests the right kind of film. The disc comes in a cheap plastic case with no insert.
The Video and Audio
This 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks pretty average. Colors are nice and poppy, with everything from Abe's pink shirt to a particularly vibrant shade of yellow nicely rendered, but fine detail is a little mushy, with some aliasing. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio doesn't have much to do except juggle a few background sounds (like traffic and birds), as well as the music, which sounds very nice. No subtitles or captions are included.
Solondz fans will likely check out Dark Horse regardless, and some of them will find aspects to enjoy, but the overall message of Dark Horse is both muddled and fairly depressing, looking down on its characters instead of relating to them. Skip It.
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