Monday, June 19, 2017
The arrested adolescent male has become a movie staple in the past two decades - think of the various 40-year-old virgins that have populated screens both big and small, with their collectable action figures and their comic books and their reluctance to leave home, even as they yearn for such grown up trappings as women and sex - without anyone understanding what lives at the root of such men. It could be an interesting theme paper; we can think of dozens of male movie characters stuck in adolescence, but few females. We've had plenty of neurotic or depressed female characters going back to the 1960s, but not many who are still at home playing with dolls or their Pokemon cards. This, I suppose, is the territory of males, wanting to stay as close to the womb as possible, to remain childlike and irresponsible, for fear of what might exist in the adult world. Dark Horse (2012, on Netflix and other platforms) not only gives us both the stunted male and the neurotic female, but tries to get them hitched.
We meet Abe and Miranda immediately. They're seated together at a wedding, and neither seems interested in the celebration. Sensing a kindred spirit, Abe asks Miranda for her phone number. On their first date, he asks her to marry him. This could be because Abe, despite being a 35-year-old who still lives with his parents and collects toys and movie memorabilia, has more guts than is readily apparent, or it could because writer/director Todd Solondz is not presenting a story that takes place in the real world. I suspect the latter. Abe is constantly weaving in and out of little fantasies, having conversations with people who turn out to not be there. Solondz has so much fun keeping viewers off balance that by the movie's end we're not sure if we've seen a comedy or a drama. Worse, Abe is such a mix of arrogance and laziness that he's almost entirely unlikable. Miranda is so heavily medicated that we don't know what she's really like. She appears to be on the verge of a coma.
There's not much to root for here. Solondz has always challenged audiences by creating characters and scenarios to make us a bit uncomfortable, and in Abe he gives us an unbearable man who swears constantly, is rude to his mother, and harbors bitterness over insignificant childhood incidents. Solondz also likes to play games with the characters - Miranda turns out to be harboring an unfortunate secret, and a nice lady at Abe's office turns out to be a callous type who preys on younger men. Abe stupidly wanders through this like one of those vacant characters in an old Nathanael West novel. In fact, he comes to an end that might've fit into one of West's darkly comic stories, except Solondz' movie isn't especially comic. It's as if Solondz happened to see Marty one night on TCM and rebooted the plot to make everyone into a cruel nut job.
Still, thanks to the cast, the movie possesses an unexpected watchability. Jordan Gelber puts in a Herculean effort as Abe, a man so angry at life that he looks like he might bust at any moment, while Selma Blair plays the overly medicated Miranda in a way that goes beyond the usual quirks. Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken play Abe's parents. Farrow, hard to recognize at first, is warm, Walken subdued, barely able to conceal his disappointment in Abe. Aasif Mandvi nearly steals the show as a friend from Miranda's past, and I wish there had been more of Donna Murphy as Abe's friend from work. Solondz, too, deserves credit for pushing through with his vision. He could've made a simple movie where a schlep was forced to confront his fears about maturing, and could've said something about how our consumer culture makes it comfortable for certain types of men to stay children forever. Instead, he stepped out on a ledge, as usual, and dared us to follow him out there. Would I have enjoyed the movie more if Abe had been more likable? Maybe, but when you're in Solondz' world you tend to meet a character at his or her low point. That's not the best way to make a buddy for life.