Todd Solondz is the M. Night Shyamalan of coal black comedies.
While Shyamalan's films too often fall back on a third-act twist, Solondz's work has hit a similarly predictable path. Life is lousy. People are lousier. Don't get your hopes up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
"Dark Horse," available now on Blu-ray and DVD, finds Solondz strumming new melodies from the same stuck chorus. While Solondz's masterpiece of modern-day glum, "Happiness," kept our synapses ablaze with shock and awe, "Dark Horse" merely hits a series of sour story points before its sad, sad finish.
Jordan Gelber is Abe, a 30-something nerd who still lives his parents, has no girlfriend and spends his work hours shopping for vintage toys. He's a fellow we've seen so many times before, the arrested development type who can't leave his parent's domestic orbit.
Abe meets the glum but lovely Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, and even though Miranda's body language says, "please, keep your distance," he asks her out all the same.
She agrees. Sort of.
Maybe Miranda believes the faux positive spin Abe shares with friends and strangers alike, something Gelber conjures wit a rare comic wit. Abe even proposes to Miranda at the end of their first date, and her ambivalence to the question gives Abe hope.
Solondz gathers a terrific cast alongside Gelber, including Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy and Justin Bartha, but the director's numb approach keeps their talents at bay. Walken's frustrations as Abe's father feel genuine, and Farrow delineates the oppressive love that helped create Abe in the first place.
Those genuine story steps get lost in the film's second half, and we're thrust into a quasi-reality that shows the ramifications of Abe's wedding proposal. Is what we're now seeing real, or are we peeking into Abe's fragile state of mind?
Solondz takes a few calculated swipes at our consumer culture along the way. Abe drives a big, yellow, gas guzzling Hummer even though he has no money and no real place to go. He fights a losing battle with a major toy store chain over a purchase, and the film cheekily blurs out the store's name although it's obvious for all to see. And while Abe's bank account is empty, his room is filled with toys, gadgets and other items that could probably fetch a pretty penny on eBay. He's satiated by pop culture, but he remains empty at his core.
All of the above could have made a fascinating black comedy, but Solondz loses control over the film's surreal flights of fancy. Gelber nearly makes it all work, for a while, combining supreme ignorance with a fear of the real world. We're left scratching our heads over Solondz's warped realities, acknowledging the obvious themes but flummoxed by his view of the human experience.
"Dark Horse" arrives sans any Blu-ray extras, a shame since who wouldn't love to hear the cast and crew break down such an inscrutable saga.