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Dark Horse

Todd Solondz's new picture is a jaundiced character study, despite an affectionate streak that lightens the proceedings to some degree.

Richard - Justin Bartha
Miranda - Selma Blair
Phyllis - Mia Farrow
Abe - Jordan Gelber
Marie - Donna Murphy
Jackie - Christopher Walken
Justin - Zachary Booth
Mahmoud - Aasif Mandvi

The “Dark Horse” in Todd Solondz’s new picture is a chubby, belligerent, self-pitying loser, devoid of prospects and thwarted in love. But the title could also charitably describe the underdog position this jaundiced character study is likely to occupy in the writer-director’s overall body of work, duly and rather dully confirming his unhappy worldview despite an affectionate streak that lightens the proceedings to some degree. Result is far less abrasive than some of its predecessors, but for that very reason seems unlikely to generate the attention needed to meet Solondz’s already modest commercial standards in specialized release.

Things begin well enough, with the camera panning across a crowd of revelers at a Jewish wedding reception before settling on two guests seated alone at a table. They’re not together and would seem an unpromising match in any case — not that this seems to occur to Abe (Jordan Gelber), a paunchy schlub in his mid-30s who proceeds to chat up the near-catatonically morose Miranda (Selma Blair) in aggressively clueless fashion. Some good, squirm-inducing comedy in Solondz’s patented mode ensues as Abe hectors Miranda for her digits before driving home in his bright-yellow Hummer.

Naturally Abe still lives with his parents, taking advantage of his meek, indulgent mother (Mia Farrow) and butting heads with his gruff father (Christopher Walken). Dad also happens to run the company where Abe ostensibly works when he’s not shopping for action figures on eBay. Though outwardly gregarious and often dorkily optimistic, Abe can turn nasty and bellicose without warning, particularly when he feels provoked by his father or his estranged younger brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), a successful doctor whom Abe blames the most for his black-sheep status.

Despite the still-widespread critical perception of Solondz as a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, all his films, from 1995’s painfully empathetic “Welcome to the Dollhouse” to 2009’s startlingly mature “Life During Wartime,” have offered at least half a spoonful of sugar to accompany their often extremely bitter medicine. The tell-tale moment here occurs when Abe, showing up on Miranda’s doorstep with a cheap bouquet and the flimsiest of pretexts, somehow gets this girl, clearly damaged by her past failed relationships, to entertain the idea of marrying him. “That wasn’t so terrible,” she says, after leaning in for a kiss.

It’s actually kinda sweet, in fact — at least until Miranda reveals she has a debilitating medical condition and arranges for Abe to meet her charming ex, Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi), occasioning a particularly sour sequence that doesn’t feel in any way pungent or provocative, just ugly. From there, various setbacks, humiliations, insults and injuries follow, aiming a series of kicks at a character who was pretty down to begin with. Disappointment spirals into delusion as Abe is bedeviled by hallucinations of his co-worker Marie (Donna Murphy), a mousy type who takes on unexpectedly seductive proportions in his daydreams, gradually loosening his and the viewer’s grip on what’s real and what isn’t.

Solondz is nothing if not a dark-horse filmmaker himself, and given his penchant for auto-critique, the fuzzy narrative logic of the pic’s final reels — with their push-pull between an unhappy ending and, well, a slightly less unhappy ending — could well be interpreted as an admission of his own complicity in his character’s fate. Yet there finally doesn’t seem to be enough going on here to invite or reward such pondering to begin with. Pic wraps on a note that, in typical Solondz fashion, could be read as either a tender parting gesture or a particularly spiteful punchline.

Wearing a ridiculous grin one minute, bellowing his lines at ear-splitting volume the next, Gelber’s loquacious Abe doesn’t make especially pleasant company, and the fact that he isn’t supposed to is of little consolation. The actor does get to deliver one deliciously dark monologue that, in decrying the loathsome venality that poisons all humanity, succinctly and incisively articulates Solondz’s central philosophy.

Other thesps, particularly Walken and Farrow, are fine in characteristically stick-thin supporting roles. The welcome exception is Blair’s Miranda; possibly channeling a slightly older, post-dropout version of the writing student she played in “Storytelling,” the actress turns her perpetual frown into a surprising repository of emotion.

Production designer Alex DiGerlando’s garish sets and music supervisor Michael Hill’s soundtrack choices seem to mock the characters at every turn, while d.p. Andrij Parekh’s Red-camera lensing (the quality of which was hard to gauge at the DVD-projected screening caught) takes in the cramped offices, outdoor malls and surreally underpopulated toy store that make up the film’s eminently depressing backdrop.

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Dark Horse

Production: A Goldcrest Films presentation. (International sales: Goldcrest Films Intl., London.) Produced by Ted Hope, Derrick Tseng. Executive producer, Nick Quested. Directed, written by Todd Solondz.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Andrij Parekh; editor, Kevin Messman; music supervisor, Michael Hill; production designer, Alex DiGerlando; art director, Dawn Masi; set decorator, Kris Moran; sound, Jack Hutson; sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Eric Offin; visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin; visual effects, Fly Studio; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; associate producer, Craig Shilowich; assistant director, Atilla Salih Yucer; casting, Ann Goulder, Gayle Keller. Reviewed at WME screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 23, 2011. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing; Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 85 MIN.

Cast: Richard - Justin Bartha
Miranda - Selma Blair
Phyllis - Mia Farrow
Abe - Jordan Gelber
Marie - Donna Murphy
Jackie - Christopher Walken
Justin - Zachary Booth
Mahmoud - Aasif Mandvi

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