Solondz abhors irony in Dark Horse

Jordan Gelber and Donna Murphy in Dark Horse.

Jordan Gelber and Donna Murphy in Dark Horse.

In an answer to contemporary culture’s manic competition for fame, Todd Solondz offers Dark Horse, a film about Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 35-year-old Jewish man—overweight, living with his parents, employed in his father’s real estate business yet still playing with toys, desperate to begin his life and enjoy the culture’s empty cheer.

Abe’s not a frontrunner, the sports metaphor used by his father (Christopher Walken). His dim prospects reflect Everyman pessimism through a lower middle-class experience that’s more authentic than Death of a Salesman, yet rarely acknowledged. Solondz, almost alone among Jewish-American filmmakers, presents ethnic uniqueness frankly, with unsmiling mockery. His tough, deadpan compassion is more humane than fashionable cynicism.

Solondz abhors irony, the sarcastic cultural disposition that oppresses all of his characters. When Abe proposes to suicidal, withdrawn Miranda (Selma Blair), she asks, “You’re not being ironic—like performance art or something?”

Dark Horse continues the narrative experiment of Solondz’s previous film, the almost masterly Life During Wartime, where depressed characters phase in and out of psychic dream/nightmare states. Abe’s visions about his father’s sympathetic secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy), suggest a yearning so deep and unwittingly compassionate it is almost, Solondz suggests, telepathic.

These episodes play out in a nearly theatrical flatness, as if Solondz were indeed rewriting Death of a Salesman—but from the inside, as a confession of ethnic commonplaces and familial discontent that have become his specialty. Abe is as much an archetype as Gopnik in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, only Abe’s unhappiness leads to loathing of self, not of his circumstances.

Abe’s first line, “I don’t dance,” is such a self-abnegating thesis statement that if Dark Horse was indeed produced on stage rather than as an independent film, it would probably receive enormous acclaim, like Mike Nichols’ current rehash of Death of a Salesman or shows like Other Desert Cities and The Lyons. But Solondz’s film does what  those plays don’t; he dramatizes the spectacle of Abe’s lack of self-consciousness, the moral perspective that contemporary culture drowns out.

Solondz’s subtext elevates Abe’s private condition into a larger social matter. His suffering tribe (Walken overstresses the father’s misery, while Mia Farrow’s supplicating mother does not—or maybe it’s just their bad wigs) is contrasted with the empty cheer of American Idol-type pop music that has become our national, anesthetizing soundtrack.

Gelber’s Abe is an uncanny figure of pampered Jewish miserabilism, and Murphy’s Marie is one of those definitive Solondz performances: a phantom life ranging from repression to sexual spite (her sullen strut sympathetically corrects the predatory Mrs. Robinson). Their obvious contrast recalls stage drama rather than cinema, but it’s still piercing.

Solondz uses an even better, ultra-cinematic device when Abe sits alone in a movie theater, waiting for a film to begin, and idly mouths the answers to an on-screen puzzle: “George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt.” This zombie mantra is a daring, brilliant summation, calling out the stars of our culture’s contemporary anomie. And it casually lays waste to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

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