Todd Solondz has at this point firmly established himself as the preeminent chronicler of the rotten underbelly of suburbia. His characters are often vile, deplorable, riddled with insecurities; they tend to be delusional and manipulative. Solondz takes the peripheral characters, the ones who would usually only be around to solicit our pity or to give us a few sadistic laughs, and places them front and center, warts and all. He doesn’t diminish their faults, nor does he force us to sympathize with them — he is uncompromising in detailing their each and every flaw — and yet, by the end of a Todd Solondz film, we do; so fully drawn are all of his characters that we cannot help but have a vested interest.
In his best work, Solondz achieves a delicate tone pitched somewhere between sympathy and pity. We can hate his characters for how horribly they treat those around them, but ultimately, they are doing the greatest damage to themselves. Whether overwrought or oblivious, his best characters all possess one fatal flaw: debilitating self-involvement.
In this regard, the protagonist of his latest film Dark Horse may be the ultimate Solondz schmuck. Abe Wertheimer, played impeccably and without vanity by Jordan Gelber, is in many ways the sad reality of the glorified Apatow man-child. An overweight thirty-something who still lives with his parents Jackie and Phyllis (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow), Abe is a case-study of arrested development: his tiny polka-dotted bedroom is adorned with action figures, Simpsons DVDs, Dr. Who cast portraits, and Gremlins lunchboxes; his wardrobe consists primarily of novelty T-Shirts, offset by the occasional sports jersey; he “works” at his father’s real estate firm, buying Thundercats figures off of eBay while Marie the secretary (Donna Murphy) clandestinely picks up the slack; and he drives around in an obnoxious bright yellow Hummer, the only consumer vehicle large enough to make him feel like a child.
At a wedding, Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), both of them having apparently been seated at the leftovers table. The only two who remain in their chairs, he leans convivially in to strike up a conversation. “I don’t dance,” he tells her; she remains staunchly disengaged. In an act that’s less love-at-first-sight than wounded-animal-means-easy-prey, Abe awkwardly and insistently wrestles Miranda’s phone number from her.
Abe thus far seems little more than a harmless, dimwitted buffoon. But his seething anger and puerile disengagement from the adult world, we will learn, never stay repressed for long. The next morning in his father’s office — where Abe is the only employee to not dress business formal — Abe becomes petulant and confrontational when his father requests the spreadsheets he had given Abe to finish some time ago. Unable or unwilling to accept his responsibility or to admit his shortcomings, Abe storms out of the office. He drives to Toys ‘R’ Us to return an action figure which has a tiny scratch on it; after being told he cannot return opened merchandise, Abe bellows at the clerk “You’ll be hearing from my attorney!” and storms out of the store. Later that night, Abe grows impatient during a game of Backgammon with his mother; she is winning, and he storms out of the room.
Abe locks himself in the bathroom and calls Miranda, who is distracted but agrees to see him on Saturday. When Abe arrives at her house, he learns that Miranda has forgotten about their date; this does not dissuade him however, nor does the brutally jilted conversation once she gets home, and he rather impulsively (in a manner somehow both impish and bullheaded) asks her to marry him and to come have tacos at the mall. Her silence is the only answer we need.
Miranda is quite a damaged soul herself, however, and several days later calls Abe to apologize and to invite him over. She tells him that after a long Skype with her ex Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi), she realizes that it’s time for her to leave behind her childish notions like suicide, ambition, success, and self-respect and instead settle down, get married, and have children. She doesn’t want Abe, but she wants to want him, and for a guy like Abe, that’s enough. “Oh my god,” she says after their first, tentative kiss, “that wasn’t horrible. Things could have been so much worse.”
Once Abe introduces Miranda to his family, however, the discord between his intentions and his reality grows. In a masterstroke, Solondz gives voice to Abe’s long-suppressed self-doubt in the form of a series of dreams in which Marie arrives as a deus ex machina to give Abe perspective. These sequences are both jarring and comedic in the way they upset the narrative and make the audience question what they are seeing. But more so than that, they illustrate Abe’s increasing panic, frustration, and retreat from reality. When Dream Marie first arrives, she hands Abe a stack of paperwork she has completed on his behalf and casually advises him to stop pursuing Miranda, who is too good for him. As his waking self becomes more aware of his own deficits, however, Dream Marie becomes a sexualized guardian angel and mother surrogate who alternately seduces and teases Abe, forcing him to confront his deepest desires and insecurities.
The film’s other great running gag is its music; horrid teen pop of the Taylor Swift variety, the songs at first feel incongruous to the tone of the film, until it is revealed that all the music is diegetic, stopping abruptly whenever Abe turns off his car stereo. Like a low rent Greek chorus, or a pre-game pep talk from the Glee club, Abe listens to vapid, emotionally shallow, and superficially uplifting top forty music that is in stark contrast to his repressed accountability and lingering fears regarding adulthood. He confides to Marie that he wanted to be a singer, but now he’s too old even for American Idol. His ringtone is a particularly awful tween number that borrows the chorus of “If I Could Turn Back Time”, an apt theme song for a sad, lazy man devoid of irony or will.
For a man so crippled by his own arrested development, it does Abe no favors that his younger brother (Justin Bartha) is a successful doctor living on the opposite coast. Abe fixates upon the height markings their parents made of them on the door frame while they were growing up, knowing that height is the only measure in which he surpasses his little brother. Abe did not finish college; he has not moved out, moved up, or moved on from his childhood. He represents the worst aspects of both nepotism and capitalism: the consumer who has no desire to grow into a provider. He ascribes value to dates and numbers, but doesn’t know what that value is. He has a linear understanding of progress, and cannot separate age from accomplishment. He will always be in the shadow of his younger brother, of his parents, of his past failures, because he is unwilling to step out from underneath it — a cloud may just as well be an umbrella on a sunny day.
Solondz, of course, has no interest in saccharine redemption for his characters. Some may consider it cynicism, but he’s too compassionate a filmmaker to deserve that label. Rather, Solondz is an unflinching realist. His films can almost be considered cautionary tales, highlighting the dangers of resigning yourself to circumstance. He is an objectivist insofar as he does not let his characters survive their transgressions without reprimand, but he is an adamant subjectivist in portraying the internal dimensions of such transgressions. Abe’s narcissism is unforgivable, but it’s not incomprehensible. He has become so adept at making himself both volatile and helpless that his loved ones have no choice but to coddle him.
When we look into the abyss of mankind, we have two choices: resignation or resolve. Abe may not be able to achieve the perspective or the drive necessary to drag himself out of his self-dug ditch, but this is not true for all of mankind. Why should film only portray the winners? As he has done so many times before, Solondz reminds us that understanding is not absolution, and forgiveness does not come without repentance.