Big Screen Berkeley: Dark Horse

Todd Solondz has quite a lot to answer for. His 1996 art-house hit Welcome to the Dollhouse laid the foundation for the late 20th century ‘American Indie’ style, and we’ve since had to contend with countless screen tales of awkward social outcasts or beautiful losers trying to adapt to the unreasonable expectations of mainstream American society.

The vast majority of these films were gratingly arch or painfully camp, but Solondz possessed tools the copycats lacked: a sharp pen and an uncompromising commitment to truthfulness. Avoiding the too clever by half, nudge-nudge wink-wink style of such indie scribes as Diablo Cody, the Duplass brothers, and Andrew Bujalski (among many others), Solondz’ scripts tackled uncomfortable topics with refreshing honesty — and his newest film, Dark Horse (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 20th) , is no exception.

Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber) is the stereotypical All-American man-child. Balding, overweight, and in his 30s, Abe works at the realestate firm owned by father Jackie (Christopher Walken, here looking even more ghoulish than usual), and still lives at home, where his bedroom walls remain lined with mint-in-box action figures and Gremlins posters.

Unsurprisingly, Abe doesn’t have a girlfriend, but thinks he may be on to something when he meets birdlike introvert Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding reception. Brought together by their mutual disinterest in dancing, the two mumble their way into exchanging phone numbers. Within a week Abe has proposed marriage, and Miranda is thinking about it.

In addition to barely knowing each other, however, there are other speed bumps along Abe and Miranda’s road to matrimonial bliss. An ill-advised meeting with Miranda’s old flame Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi, recently seen in Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator)* arouses Abe’s jealous streak, and a serious medical condition threatens to permanently mute any wedding bells.

The biggest problem, however, is Abe himself. Whether wasting his day shopping online for Thundercats action figures or endlessly moaning about how older brother Richard (Justin Bartha, soon to be seen as Stiv Bators in the forthcoming CBGB) somehow always ruins things for him, he’s utterly unwilling or unable to acknowledge his own weaknesses.

Driving his gauche yellow Hummer from home to work and back again — with occasional stops at Toys R Us to return scratched action figures — Abe seems to think the world owes him a living, or at least an apology. Always the victim, Abe does little more than whinge about how he’s “even too old for American Idol” and threaten to move out — but only if mom Phyllis (Mia Farrow) pays him the $800 she ‘owes’ him for losing in backgammon.

Despite a few darkly comic moments (Tyler Maynard’s reprising of his role in Solondz’ Palindromes is particularly amusing), Dark Horse is, at heart, a drama with aspirations of Shakespearean tragedy. Falling somewhat short of that goal, it nevertheless still cuts deep, its final tracking shot a bracing bucket of cold water to the face of anyone still inclined to believe Abe’s Billy Liar in reverse fantasies.

* Mahmoud is given the film’s best line, accusing Abe of having “no sense of irony. You don’t even really know what it means.” If that’s not giving the finger to Solondz’ many imitators, I don’t know what is.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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  • Stuart Robinson

    Jason Mantzoukas was Nadal, the missile developer in The Dictator. Aasif Mandvi had a different role.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    Thanks for that clarification, Stuart. We made the correction.

  • SarahSantucci

    I’m tired of seeing ugly, unappealing men on the screen, especially in relationship with beautiful women. I understand that movie-makers, many of them ugly and unappealing themselves, want to sell this fantasy. It’s true that beautiful women will pair up with ugly men if the men are rich or powerful, but Hollywood has recently provided a whole series of homely losers like this guy and Seth Rogan in Knocked Up, etc.
    Now it’s time to star an actress who is fat, obnoxious and has a face that will stop a clock with actors like Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt. A lot of woman would enjoy seeing that movie! But wait! we don’t have actresses like that, do we?