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Welcome to the Doghouse

Dark Horse (2011)

Jojo Whilden/37th Deauville
American Film Festival

If Gregg Araki ever decides to remake “Synecdoche, New York,” Todd Solondz might sue the pants off him — because with “Dark Horse,” Mr. Solondz has already done it.

It’s the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), an overgrown man-child who still lives with his parents, Jackie (Christopher Walken with a bad toupee) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow with some oversize red glasses). He works — after a fashion — for his father’s company; although only the competence of downtrodden colleague Marie (Donna Murphy in an impossible role) keeps him from even greater professional trouble. His main love has been shopping at a big-box toy store whose logo is conspicuously blurred. But that’s before Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a sulky, oddly passive woman who also still lives at home and has a secret.

The opening wedding-dance sequence sets the tone, as the dressed-up wedding guests all dance as if they’re in a rap video. This type of peculiar misbehavior is echoed throughout the film, such as in the clothes Abe wears to work and the relentlessly perky soundtrack. Music and Eric Offin’s sound design are noticeable throughout the film, which makes it even harder to tell what is really happening. For example, when at one point Abe is driving to Miranda’s house, Phyllis and his doctor brother Richard (Justin Bartha) appear in the car to tell him what a loser he is. What is real, and what is a hallucination? This consistent wrong-footing makes it difficult to care about what is happening to Abe or take his choices seriously. When Aasif Mandvi, as Miranda’s ex, must make a long speech about Western consumerism while wearing a neck brace, it’s hard to tell if Mr. Solondz is going for a cheap laugh or is genuinely if ham-fistedly trying to make a point. All it seems is unnecessary to put Mr. Mandvi through it.

Mr. Solondz is famous for the misanthropy of his previous movies, which have dealt with pedophilia, masturbation and racial epithets, among other hot-button topics. With “Dark Horse,” he has consciously moved into what is for him lighter material. But he has done so by appropriating another director’s style, which is an unusual technique. And the flash and color of Alex DiGerlando’s production design cannot hide the fact that, beneath the brightly colors and loud music of “Dark Horse,” there’s very little really there.


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