What with the memory of Ernest Borgnine’s death last month still fresh, it might be natural to think of “Dark Horse” as a sort of “Marty” for the 21st century, only moved from the Bronx to the suburbs and from butcher shop to real estate office.
That would be a mistake. Abe, the protagonist of “Dark Horse,” isn’t an updated Marty. He’s a nightmare version of George Costanza, from “Seinfeld.”
Abe (a very hard-working Jordan Gelber) is fat, balding, and 35. The ringtone on his phone is a cover of “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Almost as big as the bright-yellow Hummer he drives, he lives with his parents in the house where he grew up. The parents are played by a glumly underutilized Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow. Abe’s deeply unhappy, angry at the world, and resoundingly unsympathetic. That last quality may earn writer-director Todd Solondz points for honesty, but it’s death to comedy — even a comedy as matte-black and affectless as “Dark Horse.”
Solondz has made a career out of specializing in highly aberrant views of middle-class life. His two best-known movies are “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) and “Happiness” (1998). With plot elements that include masturbation, pedophilia, rape, and suicide, the latter has an honored place in the ironic-title hall of fame.
By “Happiness” standards, “Dark Horse” is almost upbeat. At a wedding, Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair). It’s unclear who’s bride’s side and who’s groom’s. She’s semi-catatonic, and her energy level descends a notch when he asks for her phone number. Abe’s decided that it must be kismet that they’re the sole guests sitting out the dancing.
Halfway through their first date (if you can call it that), Abe confides in Miranda that “I kind of see myself as a front-runner mentality, but then I like to play on my dark-horse qualities. Just strategically, if you know what I mean.” She doesn’t. Nor does she understand when he proposes marriage. But since she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend, and she’s perhaps as puzzled as members of the audience are by his doing such a thing, she sort of says yes. Or maybe it’s just that Blair’s best-known onscreen inamorata has been Hellboy, and Abe looks like a better provider?
You could say things go downhill from there, except that there was no uphill to begin with.
Abe has yelling matches with his father. He has yelling matches with his physician younger brother (one guess who his parents’ favorite was). He spends all day at the office looking at eBay on his computer. He has fantasies about Marie, an older co-worker, as a kind of guardian angel.
Donna Murphy, as Marie, is the best thing in “Dark Horse.” The winner of two Tonys, she deserves some kind of award for making it seem plausible that someone in the movie might be willing to put up with Abe. Farrow doesn’t count; she’s his mom. And she has a certain history of putting up with difficult onscreen offspring.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.