Deep or dreadful neuroses may be the lot of people in Todd Solondz’s films — the lonely teenager in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the convicted pedophiles in Happiness and Life During Wartime, the college student who lies her way into a bout of sex with her Pulitzer-winning prof in Storytelling — but damned if the writer-director doesn’t find humanity, and the scalding sympathy of wild humor, in their failings.
The plus-size misfit at the center of Solondz’s Dark Horse is a pretty seriously arrested adolescent. It’s not the awful things he does that make Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber) a charter member of the Solondz Society; it’s how awful he feels. And the feeling is contagious — to the people in his life, though not to any moviegoers who can get on Abe’s and Solondz’s weird wavelength, which locates a rich vein of comedy in life’s little tragedies.
(READ: Corliss on Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime)
Abe, 35, works in the industrial real-estate firm run by his father Jackie (Christopher Walken). The term “work” is a loose fit, since Abe is likely to delete a spreadsheet to make room for an eBay sale of ThunderCats merchandise. Still living at home, where he plays backgammon with his indulgent mom (Mia Farrow), Abe has stocked his bedroom with a 12-year-old’s detritus: fantasy-film posters and Simpsons action figures. Compared invidiously to his lawyer brother Richard (Justin Bartha), Abe is less an underachiever than a nonstarter.
At the wedding that begins Dark Horse, while the revelers dance, Abe sits out the fun next to Miranda (Selma Blair), a pretty young woman who is also a chronic depressive. On the second date, when Abe proposes marriage, Miranda wonders, “You’re not being ironic? Performance art or something?” For her, emotional commitment may be the act of self-destruction she plaintively desires. “I should give up on love, ambition, sex and expectations,” she confesses. “I should just get married and have children.” So she kisses Abe and realizes, with a subtle jolt, “Oh, God, that wasn’t horrible.” Blair is a connoisseuse of kisses, as anyone who recalls her smooch with Sarah Michelle Gellar in the 1999 Cruel Intentions will attest. That was a teen’s experiment; this could almost literally be a kiss of death.
(SEE: TIME’s Favorite Movie Kisses)
Stabbing at kindness through her suicidal gloom, Miranda says, “I want to want you,” and Abe replies, “That’s enough for me.” Enough, or too much — for his newly betrothed has a few health issues, and a vivacious boyfriend, Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi), from whom she may have acquired her clinical condition. If Abe were to contract Miranda’s disease, it might kill him but it wouldn’t surprise him, since he believes that “Humanity’s a cesspool. Deep down — maybe not so deep down — they treat you like sh-t.”
One lesson from Solondz’s previous films is that there’s no man so unappealing that he can’t be a magnet for the protective instincts of lonely women. If Miranda is not Abe’s savior, then maybe his mother; “I care about you,” she says, though he won’t let her win at board games. A stronger possibility is Marie (Donna Murphy), Jackie’s office assistant who does most of Abe’s work for him and might offer so much more. Visiting this demure, borderline drab wage slave, he finds she lives in a gaudily decorated apartment, wears slinky outfits and pursues the secret life of a sexual cougar.
(READ: Corliss on Donna Murphy in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies)
Or maybe not, since, midway through, Dark Horse begins existing simultaneously in the real world of Rockland County, N.Y., and a dream world of Abe’s longings. For this schlub, who seemed comfortable wallowing in the detritus of his wasted youth, has a fantasy life of wishfulness and regret. “I was supposed to have been the dark horse,” Abe says of his parents’ modest hopes for him. In a strangely quiet family house, Abe peels back the wallpaper to see the pencil markings of the boys’ heights. “Abe 8/93,” his father had written. “Dad’s dark horse.”
Abe is a role of snarly-bear surfaces and a soft, pitiable center. “We had interest from a number of name actors who would have fit the part well,” said producer Ted Hope, perhaps referring to such stars of the lumpen variety as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Zack Galifianakis. But Solondz had decided that his perfect leading man would be the little-known Gelber, whose previous film roles, as listed on the Internet Movie Database, include “Agent #2” in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, “Commuter” in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and “Man on the Bridge” in the TV series Rescue Me. Fat and unprepossessing, Gelber slides magically inside Abe, as Michael Stuhlbarg so neatly occupied the main role in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man.
(READ Corliss on the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man)
The whole cast is splendid, from Blair, who played Vi the vamp in Storytelling (the closing credits ID her character as “Miranda, formerly Vi”), down to the stubbornly smiling Toys“R”Us clerk (Tyler Maynard) who refuses to accept the return of one of Abe’s busted toys. The surprise sensation is Murphy, on loan from Broadway musical stardom (Passion, The King and I, Wonderful Town) for her finest, fullest movie role. Her Marie is a myriad of possibilities: a wallflower or a thrilling predator or the love of a loser’s life.
The movie ends as it began, with a couple listening to music, except that this time Abe joins Marie for a slow dance to Ben Webster’s dreamy rendition of “When I Fall in Love.” Marie/Murphy has moved from the periphery, and into the heart, of Solondz’s most waywardly endearing film — his gentlest triumph.