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In 'Dark Horse,' A Wasted Life Plays Out On Screen

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It's tough to get on Todd Solondz's wavelength, but boy is it worth the emotional gyrations. Just when you've decided he has too much contempt for his characters to do more than take cheap shots, he'll shock you with flashes of empathy, insights that cast a revelatory light over what came before. You could never call Solondz a humanist, but he achieves something I've never seen elsewhere: compassionate revulsion.

Consider Jordan Gelber's Abe, the protagonist of Dark Horse, who's 35 and portly and lives with his affluent parents in New Jersey and drives a ludicrous yellow Hummer. He takes a salary from his dad for doing little but sitting at his desk and bidding on comic-book memorabilia on eBay, and you might think when you see him, "I'm going to be stuck with this guy for the next hour and a half?"

At the wedding that begins the film, Abe manages to extract the phone number of a dark, very pretty, palpably unstable if not downright zonked-out young woman named Miranda, played by Selma Blair. After showing up at her house — or, rather, her parents' house, since she doesn't live on her own, either — he fields queries from her dad, whose eyes don't leave the newspaper. The scene feels too easy — Abe's indifference to the impact of his father's business, his insistence that talent got him a bad job he doesn't even deserve.

The next scene is even more cringeworthy, when Abe tells Miranda — who is both addled and despondent — that although he's just met her, he knows he wants to marry her. What is Solondz doing? Abe seems so un-self-aware that he's either a cartoon blowhard or delusional. Either way, he has zero stature.

And then, gradually but steadily, he attains amazing stature — tragic stature. In Solondz's mind-numbingly boring suburban New Jersey milieu — strip-malls, multiplex theaters and Abe's affluent Jewish parents' golden-hued furnishings — Abe passes the time with fantasies, many involving his father's secretary, Marie, played by Donna Murphy.

These aren't Walter Mitty daydreams, in which a nebbish comes out a hero. Instead, people tell him unpleasant truths: how lazy and out of shape he is, how unworthy of Miranda or anyone else, especially compared to his younger brother the doctor, played by Justin Bartha. In these fantasy scenes, even his endlessly indulgent enabling mother, played by Mia Farrow, drops the pretense of admiring him.

What a fascinating weave this movie is, with its blurred boundaries between reality and dreams that feel even more real. In Abe's fantasies, Murphy's Marie goes from a pink-eyed maternal type to a sultry, taunting cougar — an amazing transformation Murphy largely achieves by straightening her posture and relaxing her features.

Walken, as Abe's dad, wears a thick toupee at hideous odds with his sagging basset-hound features. He's so angry at the world — and his older son — that he can contain himself only by becoming borderline catatonic, staring at the TV screen in a stupor when he's not buying out mom-and-pop stores.

Blair's Miranda rouses herself to admit to Abe that he might be what she needs to stop her pain: She could marry him and have kids, and give up her dreams of a literary career, independence and self-respect. She says, "I want to want you," and he says, "That's enough for me" — a heartbreaking line on so many levels. Poor Abe, who moans that he could have been a singer but is now too old for American Idol, awakes like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to find he hasn't really lived.

In Dark Horse, there's little trace of the archness that sometimes marred Solondz's early movies. Even the soundtrack's mindlessly upbeat pop songs assuring us we can be anyone we want to be sound less cynical than sadly irrelevant.

Solondz blames no one and nothing for Abe's wasted life — not nature or nurture or consumerism, but some irreducible combination of them all. He's not judging his characters from on high. He's too close to them for comfort. And from that discomfort he has made a sublime work of art. (Recommended)

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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