Film review: A win for the 'Dark Horse'

It may be too obvious an intro, but filmmaker Todd Solondz — whose new film “Dark Horse” opens next week — could himself be considered a dark horse. His films have a strong following at festivals and in art houses, but they are too honest, too dark, and too bitterly funny to fit any major studio's notion of “commercial.”

Most of all, they are relentlessly unsentimental — which doesn't mean they're not emotionally engaging. He first attracted attention with “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), a tale of junior high angst that, as a friend said at the time, certainly puts “Sixteen Candles” into perspective. In some ways, Solondz could be considered the anti-John Hughes. Even at their funniest — which is very funny indeed — his movies can make an audience feel uncomfortable.

Speaking to Solondz recently, I suggested that the best comparisons would be Elaine May's “The Heartbreak Kid” (the '70s original, not the pointless and degraded remake) — “That was a brilliant piece,” he said — and Mike Leigh (“Another Year,” “Naked “), who he also admires.

“Dark Horse” centers on Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 30-something who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and who pursues a beautiful, highly medicated young woman (Selma Blair), despite friends' cautions that she's “out of his league” and “much too good for you.” After their first kiss, she sighs and says, “Oh my god, that wasn't horrible.” Several people — some of them figments of his imagination — tell him he's a loser, and frankly it's hard to disagree.

Because Solondz, like Abe, is from suburban New Jersey, and because his films have such a sense of verisimilitude, it's easy to leap to the conclusion that his childhood and family life were miserable. Not so, he says.

“There were the good times and the not-so-good times, but I didn't suffer child abuse or anything so severe. I always dreamt of escaping the suburbs for New York City, But I didn't sit around bemoaning my childhood. There were a lot of happy moments, and there were things that weren't so hot. I can't say it would stick out particularly as an unusual sort of childhood.”

Nor does he have more connection to Abe than to his earlier protagonists.

“Once you're involved in a story, you always have certain ties to your characters. It's hard to measure and say this one more than another, but I certainly have great affection for him, even as I know I probably wouldn't want to have lunch with him in real life,” Solondz said.

Numerous scenes in “Dark Horse” start off feeling real, but are gradually revealed to be dreams or fantasies. Does he know exactly where they begin and end?

“Sure,” he said. “It's all scripted out. But, whether I'm directing a scene that's a fantasy or not, the same rules apply: You have to ground the characters in an emotional reality that has an inner logic. The important thing is not whether or not you're certain it's fantasy or reality, but whether or not the inner logic of the scene pulls you forward and has that emotional sense.

“The fantasies — well, as a filmmaker, I like to play, I like to have fun. And I guess I'm a little disappointed when other people don't want to have fun with me, don't want to play with me. But what can I say? Sometimes people feel frustrated if they feel locked out of the experience as I see it. Or they read it in a way that is perhaps not quite what I had in mind. But there is a certain kind of pleasure as a filmmaker that you want to indulge in, upending all sorts of expectations.”

One of those scenes is an incredibly poignant moment near the end of the movie.

Says Solondz, “The movie hinges on that moment emotionally. If one doesn't feel anything there, then what's the point of watching the movie?”

When I suggest it's a redemptive moment – maybe not for the character, but for the audience — Solondz says, “Right. For me, what matters is not so much how the character changes and evolves. It's really about how the audience — and their experience of the character and understanding of the story as it transpires — how that evolves and changes. That's what's most important. And the fact that he's not such a hero makes it that much more compelling to me.”

“Dark Horse” opens July 27.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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