Dark Horse (Vitagraph Film/Brainstorm Media, NR)

darkhorse sqI don’t mean that he’s gone too far into being potentially offensive, but rather that he seems to have forgotten how to ground his unlikeable characters while making them memorable and interesting.

 

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Todd Solondz has always favored creating intentionally dislikeable main characters. Of course, he first became a known filmmaking quantity with 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, whose lead was the terrifically, realistically dislikeable Dawn Wiener. From there, his leads have included a pedophile, multiple terminal depressives, a pregnant teenager seeking abortion, and a motley band of others. And while he maybe isn’t the most consistent filmmaker on the planet, the vast majority of his characters feel true: You may not like them, but they seem like people recognizable from life, and it’s interesting to see their story, no matter how squirm-inducing as it may be.

In Solondz’s new film, Dark Horse, he goes a little too far. You might wonder how he could go much further than Dylan Baker’s sympathetic pedophile in 1998’s Happiness (a character that actually worked very well). I don’t mean that he’s gone too far into being potentially offensive, but rather that he seems to have forgotten how to ground his unlikeable characters while making them memorable and interesting. The main character in Dark Horse is played by Jordan Gelber, whose face you might recognize from the background of many other movies, but this is his first major shot at a substantial lead role. Gelbner plays Abe, the 35-year-old, fat, spoiled, bratty, dumb, and balding son of a successful real estate developer named Jackie (Christopher Walken, wearing ugly clothes and an uglier haircut), and while it may be the case that we recognize Abe as a type of person we’ve encountered, Solondz fails to make his story interesting or relatable.

Imagine a cross between The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Andy and Magnolia’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, but strip away anything that makes either character endearing. Then cast Jeff Garlin in the role, but take away all of his charisma. That’s basically Abe, and you have to spend the film’s plodding 84-minute running time putting up with him. The film maneuvers back and forth between Abe’s increasingly strained relations with his father (for whom he works, badly, and also still lives with); his budding relationship with the very depressed and medicated Miranda (Selma Blair, bravely working with Solondz again after 2001’s Storytelling); and some delusions of his that may or may not actually be happening, but usually aren’t.

One of the things that kept me from getting on board with the film is the fact that everyone seems to like Abe. This may not be unrealistic, as he is the boss’s son who they probably feel they should suck up to (and maybe they make fun of him behind his back, and we don’t see it), but I and presumably most of the audience hated him from about the first scene on. In fact, I hated him from the first time I saw the god-awful trailer, so everyone in the film being willing to stand by him, date him, or so much as put up with him gets grating really fast. Dawn Wiener certainly never had that luxury.

It’s hard to say how much of this is Solondz’s fault and how much is Gelber’s, but realistically, it’s probably some of the latter and a lot of the former. Remind yourself as you watch it, though, that Solondz worked with both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti in similarly dislikeable roles before they were well-known as actors. Still, it’s hard to imagine either of them turning in a performance as frustrating as Gelber’s—and, though it can sometimes be hard to tell when dealing with Solondz, I mean that in a bad way. | Pete Timmermann

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