James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
A pathetic man-child and a heavily-medicated woman fall in love then run out of luck, in Todd Solondz's latest dark comedy, starring Selma Blair
Todd Solondz doesn't make nice movies. But he does do nasty films rather well. When he announced that his latest film, Dark Horse, was to be a 'sad comedy', many assumed we were in for another peep at the terribly dark lives of American outcasts. What we've been given, though, is a surprisingly subtle - and indeed rather sad - tale of arrested development and desperation. Ironically it's probably Solondz's lightest film to date (not even an ounce of paedophilia here!) and he has toned down the shock-value in favour of wry humour and emotion. However this is still a tale that delights in subjecting unpleasant people to absolute misery and it really isn't very "nice". But it's the closest Solondz is likely to get.
When Abe, a man living in his parents' house with only his extensive collection of action figures for company meets Miranda, a depressive, almost catatonic, woman, he decides she's the gal of his dreams. It's from this point that things begin to sour for Abe; Miranda has a secret and Abe starts to regret his decision, discovering that in 21st-century America you can't return every purchase, even if you did keep the receipt. It's a fun scenario but there's not a great deal else on hand, save for a bit of fun riffing on capitalism and a few too many dips into Abe's imagination. Childish and spoilt, he's fairly loathsome, yet played by Gelber with such an eye for pathos that he's too ridiculous to be totally detestable.
Most of the best moments come from Blair, who delivers Miranda's lines with a pitch-perfect reticence, but elsewhere the tone varies wildly. Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow are underused as Abe's stoic father and coddling mother and there's less meat to the dissection of America's foibles than we've come to expect from Solondz. An unfeasibly grim conclusion forces the audience to adjust to a genuinely miserable situation for characters we've previously grown indifferent to. But nor is the ending as moving as it should be, thanks to Gelber's all-too appropriate performance. It's this reluctance to settle into a groove that works against Dark Horse but Solondz proves that he can still do subtlety and maturity without relying on quite so dark a subject matter, skewering romantic comedy with his sharp, awkward observations.
Solondz's sweetest film is still terrifically bitter. The maudlin sensibilities do stifle the belly laughs and it isn't always consistently engaging but there's a wincing poetry at work nonetheless.
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