Todd Solondz's latest (decidedly more upbeat than usual) drama, Dark Horse, has the subconscious intruding on the dysfunctionality of arrested-development banality in more of an off-putting manner than the "eloquenter of suburban hell" probably intended.
Still there's some enough gloomy, idiosyncratic flair as the focus of an initially appealing tale is Abe, a man-child, acted with disdain and assuredness by character-actor Jordan Gelber (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead). Abe has the quality of the Failure To Launch character played by Matthew McConaughey when it comes to what is means to be an adult though with little ambition and schlubby attributes.
Abe unconvincingly toils in his dad's office where he often procures (Thundercats) toys on eBay, and finds a kindred spirit in the despondent and medicated Miranda (Selma Blair of Solondz's Storytelling). A "back at home" thirty-something like him seems to be the ideal mate for him, and he proposes on their first date.
The darker wit is evident again with less shockingly funny results for the auteur; Abe gets to show Miranda his toy-filled bedroom, he tries to make a return to Toys R Us and Miranda still seems to adore an old supercilious flame (Asif Mandvi).
Maybe Abe is presented in ways with loathing, disaffected jealousy on the surface that may not make Gelber enough of a well-rounded, likable, even if you might think Abe has decency underneath. The second half of the film is more cluttered through Abe's mind that may indeed stymie the promising strands of what preceded it.
Even so, Solondz, as in most of his films like the recent, more coherent Life Before Wartime, has an acerbic mind which is reflected in his storytelling, especially the line-readings. Blair (from the Hellboy films) has a flair for what might be considered a perverse atmosphere in conveying Miranda's waywardness, and some of the better comedy comes from Christopher Walken as Abe's dad with an awful wig that nearly makes him unrecognizable. Justin Bartha (National Treasure and The Hangover) has no trouble oozing condescension as Abe's way more successful older brother.
More support comes by way of Mia Farrow as Abe's sweet, loving mother and Donna Murphy (Higher Ground, The Fountain) as a frumpy secretary in celluloid that again tries to branch comedy and tragedy with a certain amount of bitter alacrity. Perhaps crucial to the enjoyment of Dark Horse (its accurate, if ironic naming may refer to more than one character relative to their family) is how well Gelber (an accomplished character actor) pulls the viewer into an oddly transfixing vantage point where people are different than they have been perceived to be.
Nevertheless, Solondz's fine-tuning, how flashy and hallucinatory it dims the overall view albeit with nimble editing (and variable outcomes) hardly effaces (or is reminiscent of) the memories of his earlier, more original, if less pragmatic flights of fancy, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness.