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The 'dark horse' can't grow up in Todd Solondz's new comedy

Director Todd Solondz is used to showing viewers humanity’s darker side. (AP/Michel Spingler)

Fear, Anxiety and Depression: hopefully not all at the same time — and not before breakfast. This happens to be the title of Todd Solondz’s first feature film, made for 20th Century Fox when he was hired by the studio straight out of film school. The dream-come-true quickly turned into a nightmare for Solondz. He fled the film industry after his experience and returned only six years later, with what’s been dubbed “a high school humiliation comedy” – the independently financed Welcome to the Dollhouse.

In the five films he’s made since then, including his newest film, Dark Horse, Solondz has been called misanthropic and “the other side of Judd Apatow." He is a filmmaker who gravitates to the dark regions of the milieu where his films are most often set: well-ordered American suburbia.

Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber), the main character in Dark Horse, is a tub of incompetence, inaction and anger. He works for his father (a very good, toupee-topped Christopher Walken) in a commercial real estate company and lives at home, where he is protected by his backgammon-playing mom (Mia Farrow). He says he hates both his parents.

Abe’s room, over-stuffed with action figures, and the yellow Hummer he drives are two extreme symbols of his arrested personality. This grown-up, unrealized child is confronted head-on when, at the beginning of the film, he meets a zoned-out young woman named Miranda (Selma Blair). After their first kiss, Miranda tells him, “That could have been so much worse.”

Abe is an utterly “normal” character — something new in Todd Solondz’s movie universe. His characters tend to harbor much darker secrets, like child molestation (as in Life During Wartime and Happiness). Solondz has often been accused of being contemptuous of his characters and of making cynical films.

But there is a compassionate streak in The Dark Horse, despite the way in which Solondz (brilliantly) undermines straight characterizations and tries to unsettle the audience. When Abe declares his love for Miranda and gushes out that he wants to marry her, she says, “I want to want you.” He says, “That’s enough for me.”

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