Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2011)

7. Dark Horse

Todd Solondz has said in interviews that each of his movies make less then the one before it. Considering his movies couldn’t be less commercial if they were in Esperanto, that’s not exactly a surprising fact. You’d think that would make it impossible for him to bankroll new features, yet somehow indie-dom’s infinitely tragic-comic filmmaker keeps popping out a new movie every few years. “Dark Horse” received the director’s best reviews in a while. Much to Solondz’ surprise and delight, the film features no rape, child molestation, or actively transgressive themes. But don’t think that means “Dark Horse” isn’t a depressing, emotional experience.

The main character of the film is Abe, a middle-age toy collector who never quite figured out this “maturity” thing. Aside from his interest in collecting relics of his own youth, he still lives with mom and dad. He works in his dad’s office building where he puts the minimum amount of effort, and sometimes not even that, into the job. Abe seems to be stuck at the emotion age of 13. He squabbles with his dad. His mom hugs, kisses, and comforts him on a daily basis. He resents his far more successful, professional younger brother. While inside Abe is aware of his sad state of affairs, he puts on an optimistic face, boldly misrepresenting his talent, appearance, and abilities. It’s that misplaced confidence that finds him in an awkward relationship with a sad woman named Miranda. The relationship forces Abe to directly address his arrested development which sends him spiraling into a crisis.

After the good-but-dour “Palindromes” and the similarly-dour-but-less-good “Life During Wartime,” “Dark Horse” feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s the first Solondz feature in a while to active go for comedy. “Dark Horse” was actually written as a deconstruction of a popular genre of comedy. In the years since “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and other Judd Apatow produced films, many R-rated comedies have found popular success with stories about man-child protagonists, adult men who act like petulant kids. These stories usually find the man-child redeem by the end, coming into belated maturity, usually with the help of a woman significantly more attractive then him. In “Dark Horse,” the man-child’s wacky outer appearance hides a tender, wounded heart. He lives with his parents, who resent him, and he lacks the required group of frat boy friends. For that matter, Abe doesn’t seem to have any friends. The woman he pursues is as depressed and as emotionally dysfunctional as him. The quest towards maturity wrecks Abe even more. And there’s no happy ending. “Dark Horse” is a strong reaction to the defining clichĂ© of our current wave of comedy.

Abe is not your usual, cuddly movie man-child. As you’d expect from Solondz, the film never backs away from the character’s negative qualities. He is lazy, searching for vintage, overpriced toys on eBay when he’s supposed to be working. He takes a perfectly fine action figure back to the store, hoping for a refund. When the patronizing clerk refuses to give him store credit, Abe has a temper-tantrum. He comes into work late and heads to an important meeting in fat-man shorts and t-shirts with juvenile messages on them. Shirts of that fashion seem to be Abe’s primary uniform. He even refuses professional help, refusing to visit a shrink or take medication. He dropped out of college and has no interest in going back. Abe is almost totally without redeeming qualities, which is only exacerbated by his relentlessly showy personality. His only saving grace are the rare moments when Abe drops the bullshit, revealing that he’s a sad, damaged little kid inside. Jordan Gelber, a character actor with few roles of note before this, gives a fearless performance. Gelber embraces Abe’s obnoxious qualities but never lets go of his inner humanity, transforming a simpering man-child into a tragic anti-hero.

Solondz’ tendency to revisit characters is evident in “Dark Horse’s” bizarre love story. While at a wedding of an obscure family member, Abe briefly runs into Miranda. Though the film doesn’t indicate it in any way, Miranda is actually Vi from “Storytelling,” Selma Blair reprising the part. The two meet so fleetingly that Miranda has no recognition of Abe the next day. He still manages to talk her into a date. On that first date – sitting in Miranda’s backyard, drinking Diet Coke – Abe proposes. After some consideration, Miranda accepts. This is despite the two having nothing in common. Miranda is clearly put off by Abe’s toy collection, his pushiness, his behavior and his disinterest in moving out of his parents’ house. She doesn’t call herself Vi anymore but Miranda hasn’t changed too much. She is constantly Skyping with her ex-boyfriend Mahmoud, who acts as her personal life couch. She’s clearly still in love with him too, as the only time the morose Miranda perks up is when Mahmoud is around. When talking, Miranda drops references to literary and psychological ideals completely beyond Abe. The only reason she said “yes” is because the former Vi has given up on writing and wants to settle. After he proposes, she asks Abe if he’s being “ironic,” if his proposal was an act of performance art. This reveals Miranda’s inner Vi, a self-hating, wounded hipster. Vi is still looking for people to validate her, still on the search for an identity of her own. Selma Blair’s performance is raw and deeply sad.

Abe’s toy collecting is vital to understanding his character and his relationship with Miranda. In the last act of the film, in a delirious daydream, Abe returns to Toys R’ Us. He confronts the same annoyingly upbeat cashier. Instead of attempting to return a “Lord of the Rings” figure, he instead asks for a refund for a fiancĂ©e. This is why Abe doggedly pursued Miranda. He has no serious interest in a relationship. He has no intention to improve himself. When Miranda or his dad attempt to push him into maturity, he freaks out. Instead, Abe only sees Miranda as another addition to his collection. He assumes that getting married will make him a grown-up, not that growing up leads to marriage. What other movies play for comedy, “Dark Horse” plays for tragedy. (For the record, the toys I recognize in Abe’s collection are vintage “Thundercats,” NECA’s “Gremlins” toys, Playmates’ “Simpson” line, and yet more “Lord of the Rings” stuff. My God, I’m a dork.)

Despite its sad qualities, “Dark Horse” is the funniest film of Todd Solondz’ career. Abe’s behavior is off-putting and awkward enough that it produces laughs in the audience. In the opening scene, Abe wantonly hits on Miranda. She is completely oblivious to his advances, adding to the humor. When he shows up at her house, her Mom looks at him with bafflement. Abe makes boasts he can, in no way, back up. One of the subtlest, biggest laughs in the film arrives when the two are hanging out in her backyard. Abe finishes another made-up boasts, crumbles a Coke can, and tosses it towards the trashcan. Off-screen, we hear the can tumble to the ground. The jokes are strictly of the awkward, cringe-filled variety. These are the types of laughs Solondz has always traded it in and “Dark Horse” is a great example of it.

Another source of humor is Abe’s odd relationship with his parents. Abe is a grown-ass man but he maintains an antagonistic relationship with dad. After attempting to fire him, Abe throws a childish fit, slamming a trashcan down in anger. At home, the two meet in the hallway. Instead of moving around each other, father and son stare each other down. Mom, meanwhile, coddles Abe. She finds him in his bed, kissing his forehead and giving him hugs. This is despite the fact that he treats mom no better then his dad. The two play Backgammon and, when Mom starts to win, Abe storms off. Weirdly, the parents don’t seem any happier on their own. The only real interaction we see between Abe’s mom and dad are the two sitting on the couch, in silence, watching an obnoxious TV sitcom. These laughs are tougher and, personally, hit a little close to home. Christopher Walken’s face has never seemed more sunken before, the actor playing up his age and quiet strength. It’s one of Walken’s best performance in quite some time. Mia Farrow exudes warmth and motherly love, even though her son is tough to love.

The oddest thing about “Dark Horse” is its element of fantasy. The film is frequently interrupted by vivid flights of fancy. Characters in the film appear to Abe, bringing a voice to his inner doubts and fears. While waiting for his first date with Miranda, he imagines Marie, the secretary from work, coming to his car. She brings him finished paperwork while also telling him he’s wasting his time. Marie is a frequent target of Abe’s fantasies. She picks him up in a supped up sports car. She takes him back to her home, a modern-seeming mansion. She acts like a porn-y cougar, cynical and slinky, sipping fancy liquor and attempting to seduce him. Of course, this is in stark contrast to Marie’s actual reserved, mousy personality. These sequences aren’t real. Instead, this is what the childish Abe thinks adulthood looks like, like something out a cheesy eighties movie. As Abe’s world falls apart, his fantasies become more confrontational. He imagines his mom and older brother in the back of his cartoonish, canary yellow Hummer. They tear down Abe’s life, confirming his fears that he’s the “failure” of the family. In his final fantasy, Mahmoud appears as the Toys R’ Us manager, treating Abe to the psychiatric reading he’s most afraid of. To a first time viewer, “Dark Horse’s” blending of reality and fantasy can be tricky. You’re are left uncertain about which events are real. However, a second viewing allows a watcher to decipher events more clearly.

I should talk more clearly about Marie. Marie clearly takes pity on Abe. She helps him with his paperwork when he refuses to do it. She talks his father down when he’s preparing to fire him. They go out to lunch together, the older woman listening to Abe’s childish rants. Because of this, Abe imagines Marie as a potential romantic partner. That’s the only way Abe can imagine any woman that isn’t his mom. Yet a closer reading suggests she sees Abe as what he is: A sad, grown-up little kid. In one of Abe’s lurid fantasies, Marie mentions that she lives alone and that both her children are dead from mutual suicides. If we can assume this is true, it explains why Marie would feel sorry for Abe. She is sad and wounded too and desperate for love herself. The final moments of “Dark Horse” steps into Marie’s fantasy world. We see her home as it actually is, a modest suburban house. Inside a room, posters for Broadway plays hanging on the wall, she quietly dances with Abe. The camera cuts away to her at work, starring off into the middle distance, bored and sad. This is her fantasy, something simple and quint but honest and true. If “Dark Horse” was the kind of movie that received Academy Award nominations, Donna Murphy would have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. It’s a quietly wounding performance.

Which brings us to “Dark Horse’s” devastatingly sad ending. Everything bad that can happen to Abe befalls him, including a car wreck, a coma, and a rare sexually transmitted disease. Even on his death bed, his skin yellow from a failing liver, he is ignorant to his weaknesses. He thinks Miranda might still love him. He realizes Marie had feelings but is clueless of their actual meaning. As Abe is dying, his dad assures him he can keep his job. Earlier in the film, Abe mentioned his affinity for dates, and how he felt certain dates have special meaning. On his tombstone, his father printed the wrong date. When his brother points this out, his dad waves the concern away, saying it “doesn’t matter.” Even in death, Abe is a loser. Yet the people gathered around his grave makes it clear that someone did care for him. There was a tiny sliver of hope for him, if only he had been honest enough with himself to see it.

Another happy return to Solondz’ career is his ironic use of sickeningly sweet pop music. “Dark Horse” is primarily scored to happy, day-glo bubblegum pop. Abe cruises around in his car, another meaningless ditty on the radio. They have titles like “A Night Like This,” “Who You Wanna Be,” “Now Is the Time,” and so on. But a closer listen to the lyrics shows the music reflects the film’s themes. As Abe heads towards his first date with Vi, a number talking about a bright future plays. After a disastrous meeting with the girl, a song about trying a second time plays. Solondz says the songs were inspired by the music they played on “American Idol” when someone looses, which is a fitting comparison, especially since Abe dreamed of being on the show at one point. Like Abe, the songs seem happy and perfect but hide an inner sadness. When the film crash-cuts to Abe walking in a rainstorm through the toy store parking lot, a sappy pop ballad on the soundtrack, the audience laughs. But it’s a sad, knowing sort of laughter.

“Dark Horse” is a return to form for Solondz. Like his best films, it’s quietly funny and heart-breakingly sad. The director creates another character that the audience would hate if their flaws weren’t so achingly human. Like the director’s best films, “Dark Horse” invites chuckles and consideration, leaving a lasting effect on the viewer. The effect, powered by the phenomenal cast, is simultaneously sad and funny. It would appear that Todd has rediscovered his mojo. His neurotic, odd, funny, depressed mojo. [Grade: A-]

Despite the director's insistence that every new film might be his last, the last decade has been very productive for Todd Solondz. He has a new film in pre-production right now, heading for a possible 2015 release. Entitled "Wiener-Dog," the film is another sequels of sorts to "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Despite killing her off in "Palindromes," the film will feature Dawn Wiener again. This time, indie wunderkind actress Greta Gerwig will step into Heather Matarazzo's iconic role. The plot revolves around a cute dachshund bringing joy and happiness into several characters' lives. Which, uh, does not sound like a Todd Solondz film. I suspect that plot description is deceptively sweet. Whenever that film rolls around, I eager anticipate it. Most of Solondz' films, as difficult as they can be, impress and beguile me. He's a true American original, that's for sure.

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