Donna Murphy and Jordan Gelber star in "Dark Horse. " (Jojo Whilden / Vitagraph…)
In the movies of Todd Solondz, the world is a horrible place populated by miserable or unkind people. While there's plenty of misery and unkindness in the director's seventh full-length feature,"Dark Horse," Solondz also gives us something new, or at least less self-consciously misanthropic.
"Dark Horse" is a glum little sort-of comedy brushed with melancholic sweetness; for once, Solondz seems less interested in scoring points off his characters than in creeping into their shy, sad interior worlds.
Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an angry, pudgy 35-year-old who thinks the universe owes him more than it does. He lives at home with his mother and father (played, like desiccated husks of parenthood, by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and works for his father's two-bit real estate management company, if you can call what he does "working": Abe spends most of his time tracking down "ThunderCats" gewgaws on eBay, while a sympathetic co-worker (Donna Murphy) covers for him.
But Abe's life may be on the verge of changing. At a wedding he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a wispy, depressed young thing who also lives at home. Abe is so overconfident he can't see what a loser he is — he huffily tries to return an action figure to Toys R Us, threatening legal action when he's rebuffed by an officious clerk. But somehow, he believes in a future with Miranda, so strongly that he proposes to her on their first date.
What follows is an odyssey that blurs reality with illusion, suggesting Abe's tenuous grasp on real life. Is Miranda pregnant with Abe's child? Did she infect Abe with hepatitis B during sex? Did the two have sex at all? Is Miranda really more interested in Abe's more successful, if not necessarily more likable, brother who is a doctor (played by Justin Bartha)?
Gelber doesn't go overboard playing the lovable loser: With his lumpy yet aggressive gait and perpetually agitated demeanor, he's just annoying enough that any sympathy you end up feeling for Abe is the grudging kind. But unlike characters Solondz has previously given us in pictures like "Happiness" and"Life During Wartime"— pedophiles, rapists and the like — there's nothing artificially incendiary about Abe.
It seems that Solondz, who also wrote the script, hopes for the best for his troubled protagonist, even if he isn't wholly optimistic about Abe's chances. "Dark Horse" is a comedy of bad manners that's imbued with uncertainty about the world and one man's place in it. Modest and mildly entertaining, it's a miniature portrait of a potentially jumbo-sized failure.