Indie director Todd Solondz is well know for his controversial themes ranging from racism in Storytelling (2004) to child molestation in Life During Wartime (2009) but with his latest feature, Dark Horse, Solondz takes on the lighter subject of arrested development.
Abe (Jordan Gelber) still lives at home with his parents and works for his father’s firm, his room hasn’t changed since Junior High – Power Rangers and all – and neither has Abe. When he meets the equally adolescent Miranda (Selma Blair) Abe decides it is time to grow up and asks her to marry him. As Abe makes small steps towards maturity he finds himself emotionally crippled by increasingly surreal hallucinations.
The theme of arrested development or man-child-syndrome has been a staple in Hollywood over the past decade or so, in particular the man-child film par-excellence The Hangover (2009) and The Hangover 2 (2011). Solondz picks up this now clichéd genre to turn it on its head, and for the most part he is very successful. Unlike the mainstream features of this genre, where the characters are typically redeemed and revealed to be good people in the end, the character of Abe is deeply unattractive with his ostentatious bright yellow hummer and mood swings that would put a teenager to shame. Solondz is not asking his audience to like Abe, but to accept him despite his flaws. This is familiar territory from Solondz – presenting uncomfortable material and asking us to think about whether we like it or not.
Solondz is well known for his ability to gather a great cast and Dark Horse doesn’t disappoint. As well as the tremendous performances from Selma Blair as the overly medicated Miranda and Jordan Gelber’s cringe-inducing Abe, there is a wonderfully restrained Christopher Walken as Abe’s Middle America-suburban-father and Mia Farrow, who came out of retirement for the part of Abe’s over-caring mother, Phyllis.
Whilst the cast and concept are tremendously impressive, the problem with the film is in its structure. After establishing the characters and developing the narrative, the film switches halfway through to a Bunuelian surrealism as we enter into a series of Abe’s fantasies guided by his father’s company secretary Marie (Donna Murphy). These dreamscapes are well executed but tremendously jarring when compared to the more traditional narrative of the first half of the film.
Solondz’s latest feature, whilst possessing many notable positive qualities, lacks an overall cohesion to make for a truly enjoyable drama. Fortunately the performances from the central cast make for pleasant, if disjointed, viewing.