Todd Solondz is back in New Jersey. Almost 20 years after releasing his Indie classic Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995, writer/director Solondz has retreated to his roots.
In Dollhouse, nerdy Jewish girl "Dawn" (played by Heather Matarazzo) had just entered junior high school and everything about her life was unbearably painful and yet side-splittingly funny. No matter how hard she tried, Dawn was tormented by the feeling that all of life's cards were stacked against her.
But the adolescent angst that was so endearing in a girl who had barely entered her teens quickly becomes oppressive in a man stuck somewhere in his mid-30s. "Abe," the central character in Dark Horse, is Dawn grown older but not one whit wiser.
Abe (Jordan Gelber) still lives with his parents in the very same suburban bedroom he's occupied for decades. He started college but never finished, and now spends his days in his father's office. He's supposed to be learning the commercial real estate business but he never does anything productive, and no one at the office expects much from him anymore (assuming anyone ever did).
While Abe surfs online for collectible toys, his father "Jackie" (Christopher Walken) retreats ever further into a protective shell. Then evening comes and Jackie and Abe head home. Mother "Phyllis" (Mia Farrow) does what she can to ease the tension between them, but she knows all the while she will never succeed.
One day Abe is seated at a wedding reception next to dark and dour "Miranda" (Selma Blair). As the guests start heading to their cars, Abe asks Miranda for her phone number, and lacking sufficient energy to steer clear of him, she provides it. So Abe pursues Miranda with phone calls, visits, and flowers, convincing himself that her passive acquiescence is active encouragement.
But the mental effort required to play both sides of their relationship proves too taxing for Abe, and he is soon lost in increasingly lurid fantasies which eventually spiral out of control. Even having seen Dark Horse twice, I honestly can't tell you what connects the various incidents on screen in Act Three. The narrative thread evaporates without a trace, and then suddenly Dark Horse is over.
There was a time I had high hopes for Todd Solondz. After Dollhouse, he made two films (Happiness in 1998 and Storytelling in 2001) which were incendiary yet thought-provoking. Excellent actors gave indelible performances in challenging roles, and even though each film contained disturbing images, I felt mentally engaged after taking these cinematic trips to the dark side with him. When I reviewed his fourth film Palindromes in 2005, I gave it a very high rating. I was impressed that Solondz had finally left New Jersey behind and "crossed the Delaware" in a dark expose about the fragmented post-9/11 world.
Then he backtracked. In Life During Wartime (2010), Solondz asked a whole new cast to play the key characters from Happiness, but instead of conflicted individuals they had become ugly stereotypes.
In Dark Horse there's a strange disconnect between what you hear and what you see. If you were to listen to the dialogue with your eyes closed, you would never know that all the principal characters are Jewish. But open your eyes and Jewish identifiers are everywhere. From the bright blue yarmulkes in the opening scene to the innumerable headstones carved with Hebrew names near the end, we are clearly in a Jewish world. Phyllis decorates her home with Israeli posters, and mixed in with the many action heroes stuffed onto Abe's shelves… there he is… the Fiddler on the Roof.
Watching Palindromes, I thought Solondz had achieved a balanced view of American life embracing both Jewish families and non-Jewish families, and finding strengths and weaknesses on all sides. But now I think I was overly-optimistic. There's a core of self-loathing in Life During Wartime and Dark Horse, and I'm left scratching my head.
Dark Horse opens at Facets Multimedia on Fullerton on June 30. For complete schedule and ticket information, call the Facets Hotline (773.281.4114) or visit the website: http://www.facets.org.
Jackie (Christopher Walken) confronts his son Abe (Jordan Gelber) at the office. Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden (2011).