There aren’t many American directors that split opinion more that Todd Solondz. Often lambasted not only for his choice of material, such as child rape and paedophilia, but also for the way in which he styles such topics, in his own unique, darkly comic way. Although never a mainstream success at the box office, Solondz has often found vindication through the response of critics, with his films often winning awards at Cannes and Berlin, as well as garnering praise early in his career from Roger Ebert.
Like Tarantino, Solondz has created a world of characters that co-exist both inside and outside the films he makes. Much like in Tarantino’s world (where John Travolta’s character Vince Vega from Pulp Fiction is the brother of Michael Madsen’s Vic Vega from Reservoir Dogs, for example), Solondz’s films are littered with re-occurring characters, often even played by different actors. Such is the case in Solondz’s most recent effort, Dark Horse, which sees Selma Blair reprise her role as the aspiring writer from Storytelling. It’s Abe (Jordan Gelber), though, that is the film’s protagonist: an emotionally stunted thirty-something still living with his parents, who is only employed because his dad has given him an office job, and who harbours deep jealousy and resentment towards his successful doctor brother Richard (Justin Bartha). After meeting Miranda (Blair), who is now heavily medicated and living with her parents with all hopes of her academic career in tatters, Abe almost immediately proposes marriage in order to try and shake his image of the families ‘dark horse’ and prove himself a worthwhile human being.
Gelber is fantastically convincing as Abe, who has more than a touch of David Brent, Ricky Gervais’ character from The Office, about him. Constantly spouting phrases like, “no problemo” and, “200%” whilst throwing his Diet Coke cans into bins and shouting, “two-points!” His bedroom is a Mecca of geek culture, adorned with Dr. Who posters and unopened Simpsons figurines. His obnoxious yellow Hummer is only matched by his awful ringtone and slovenly wardrobe. But in his own mind, at least with his interactions with those around him, he is a legend. Unlike David Brent, who is a victim of his circumstances, and is forced to develop such an awful personality due to his overbearing mediocrity, Abe is simply a victim of his own idleness, lack of ambition and apathy. He blames his parents (the beautifully cast Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) for not supporting him enough; he blames his brother for being his parents’ favourite; and he blames his surroundings for not presenting him with enough life opportunities. Solondz has created a character in Abe that perfectly represents the combination of entitlement and Western consumerism. He is the man who expects to leave school and walk into a dream job; who expects the very best of everything without having earned it and has reached an age where it is too late; who doesn’t understand why his life isn’t perfect.
In many ways Dark Horse is the archetypal Todd Solondz film: his dry wit and blacker than black humour is ever present, and few write and portray middle-aged men as aptly as he does and the over-bearing father and overly-indulgent mother are stalwarts throughout his work. The strength of his writing is evident in the fact that we all know an Abe: he was the friend that was still answering his phone with “Wassssup” long after everyone had moved onto the latest catchphrase zeitgeist. Miranda, however, has tried and failed to achieve her dream and is now stuck in arrested development. Her heavily medicated, detached state of living has destroyed any ambition she may have had left and her relationship with Abe represents her just giving up and accepting a role as a mother and wife. When kissing Abe for the first time she exclaims “well that wasn’t horrible”.
During an interview following the release of Happiness, Solondz, who comes across as a mixture of Woody Allen and Emo Phillips, openly admitted that he has nothing much more to say, though he’d probably keep making films. On the basis of his subsequent work, particularly Dark Horse, he was probably right. It lacks the edge that his early films had, despite being very watchable, and even great in parts; it can only be considered one of his weaker efforts. It is difficult to see where he will go from here as an artist; he admits himself that the lack of controversial subject matter has allowed him to reach a much larger audience than usual. With this being his first film to be released without any significant censoring, he has since stated that he does not know why he hasn’t attempted this sort of film before. Perhaps a more mainstream path is the future for this once ground-breaking director, but whether he has much more to say about middle-American families, unhappy middle-aged men or the difficult relationship between parents and their children remains to be seen.