Todd Solondz is the sort of director beloved by fresh-faced film students when they first arrive at school—his films are superficially interesting for their shock value and their disconnect from reality coexisting with an insistence that this is how life really is. Once deep into the syllabus, though, the burgeoning filmmakers learn that these spectacles lack the control or craftsmanship that makes the movie-going experience so exciting. He’s in the sort of rut where fellow student favorite Wes Anderson was uncomfortably wedged before the release of the remarkable Moonrise Kingdom: each film a smeared carbon copy of the one just before, with an emphasis on aesthetics and not much more.
Mr. Solondz’s second film, Happiness, is still his best; it indulges in glum miserablism but still has compelling conflicts and a ’50s-melodrama directorial style that complements its ideas. Subsequent years brought a series of films in which Mr. Solondz intended to shock his audience with graphic sex or events and ideas that are outré for their own sake, as though the lesson he learned from Happiness was that making an audience uncomfortable is the ultimate goal. That’s why it’s a relief that Dark Horse, while bearing surface similarities to past Solondz films, begins on a dramatically different path. Like Happiness, the film begins with an uncomfortable meeting between a beautiful woman and a socially inept, unattractive man. Unlike Happiness, however, the first human interaction in Dark Horse doesn’t lead immediately to crushing unhappiness; the plot unfolds like a heightened version of life.
The socially inept man in question is the film’s protagonist, Abe (played by Jordan Gelber), whose attempts to seduce the lovely Miranda (Selma Blair) are off-putting and bizarre in a manner recognizable to anyone who’s ever reassured a friend going through a long dry spell. Abe calls Miranda late at night, when she’s zonked out on prescription drugs, and takes her attempts to end the call as an invitation to show up to her house with a bouquet of flowers. Their courtship unfolds like a silent comedy, with the ardency of Abe’s affection parried at every turn by Miranda’s pharmaceutical coyness. She’s probably into him—well, maybe; she doesn’t really have the capacity to respond to even the most quotidian of social cues, let alone the mania of Abe’s dating style.
One can’t fault Abe, really, for his inability to interact with people. The first third of the movie elucidates with great sympathy the reasons for his anxieties. Despite being long past the age at which he should have moved out, if his paunch and hairline are to be judged, Abe lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and works for his father. The rage festering inside Abe—at his parents, at his brother, at his loveless and lonely situation—explodes outward in one early instance when he cannot get a refund at a toy store. Leave aside for a moment what a tired cliché the adult action-figure enthusiast may be. The story of a life spent as a “dark horse,” hoping for literally anything to change, comes across in a moment; the remainder of the movie would have to be brilliant to be necessary.
But with his screenwriting so able to convey a human story, and his actor so well chosen and so resourceful, Mr. Solondz still cannot resist the impulse to bury his film’s best elements under a thick layer of that old freshman surrealism. Abe’s confidant is but a manifestation of his conscience, or his alter personality, or the self-critical voice in his head: this much is never clear, but she appears constantly to hector him.