Dark Horse

Selma Blair, Jordan Gelber in Dark Horse (Axiom Films)

The Dark Knight Rises will no doubt bury Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse at the box office this summer. But a lack of CGI and 3D is no reason to ignore the genius behind this painfully funny tragicomedy. Being balding and paunchy might rule you out as a potential superhero, but you could still land a date with a hot chick like Selma Blair.

Dark Horse stars Jordan Gelber as Abe, a 35-year-old Jewish man who’s still living at home with his mum and dad (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken). Nominally employed in his dad’s real-estate business, Abe’s life seems to revolve largely around games of backgammon, guzzling Diet Cokes and fruitless trips to Toys R Us.

Still cocooned in his adolescent world, Abe is not most girls’ idea of a Prince Charming. But when he meets fellow wallflower Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, an unlikely relationship begins. No sooner has he thrust some cheap flowers at her on their first date, than a marriage proposal is on the table.

On the face of it, the slim and attractive Miranda is way out of Abe’s league. But one of the many pleasant surprises of Dark Horse is that Miranda’s life turns out to be even more of a screw-up than Abe’s. She’s heavily medicated, at times almost catatonic and living with her parents, too.

I expected this movie to be a catalogue of social and sexual embarrassments – think Larry Sanders meets Judd Apatow. There are plenty of misunderstandings and painfully funny moments here, starting with the scene in which Miranda doesn’t even remember making a date with her would-be suitor. Abe’s exasperated dealings with a Toys R Us clerk will strike a chord with many a dissatisfied consumer. Then there’s an explosive bathroom confrontation between Abe and Miranda’s astonishingly cocky ex-boyfriend (played by The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi).

Dark Horse did make me laugh, because it nails the ongoing awkwardness of living at home with your parents and – even worse – taking orders at work from your dad. But thanks to Gelber’s sensitive and well-judged performance, Abe’s struggles to be his own man are also surprisingly poignant. Underneath all the teenage posturing, he does come across as a nice guy who respects women.

Solondz’s script doesn’t focus solely on the awkward courtship and unexpected obstacles faced by odd couple Abe and Miranda. As the film moves towards its climax, we realise that the most important woman in Abe’s life isn’t Miranda or Farrow’s desperate-to-please mum, Phyllis. Donna Murphy is terrific as Marie, the dowdy secretary who functions as Abe’s workplace confidante but also haunts his subconscious and fuels his fantasies.

Like me, you might be confused at times about when Marie and Abe are having a real conversation and when he’s simply wrestling with his inner demons. An early scene shows her jumping into his car outside Miranda’s house to warn him that he’s wasting his time. But it’s just Solondz’s way of giving us a window into Abe’s inner thoughts. When Marie’s own unexpressed feelings for Abe are finally revealed, Solondz brilliantly conveys the yawning gulf between what men fantasise about and what women really desire.

It would be remiss of me not to compliment Mia Farrow on successfully channelling her years with Woody Allen into a believable portrait of Jewish motherhood. Is she largely responsible for Abe’s failure to quit his adolescent funk? You bet she is. Then there’s Christopher Walken, who manages to convey a lifetime of paternal disapproval with the slightest twitch of his facial muscles.

The production designers have done a great job with the details in Abe’s bedroom – from the headache-inducing red spotted wallpaper to that gallery of Doctor Who posters. But Solondz also uses repeated shots of the family home – Abe’s yellow Hummer in the driveway and his parents marooned on the couch – to emphasise a world in stasis. When we return to those now-empty places at the end, the emotional impact is enormous.

Gelber may not yet be a household name, but his pudgy and irascible Abe offers a thoughtful approach to the male-in-crisis genre. Dark Horse shows Solondz at his least cruel: a refreshing change from a market dominated by gross-out comedies and lowest common denominator sex farces.

Dark Horse is released in UK cinemas on Friday 29 June 2012.

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