06/04/2012 07:50 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Movie Review: Dark Horse

I'm not going to invoke the title of this film to describe writer-director Todd Solondz.

But Dark Horse, opening in limited release Friday, is pure Solondz, a return to form after Life During Wartime and Palindromes, which seemed like experiments in style more than anything else. He once again takes a loser as his protagonist and dares us to feel sympathy for him. Solondz encourages you to laugh at the excesses of the film's central character, Abe (Jordan Gelber), while daring you to feel for him.

Abe is not just a loser; he's an obnoxious loser, the kind of guy who probably sees Charlie Sheen as some shamanic poet-philosopher but could never hope to imitate Sheen's weird anti-charisma. He's the classic underachiever who believes the only impediment to his own success is the opposition of the whole freakin' world.

He works for his father Jackie (a hilariously toupeed Christopher Walken) in Jackie's real-estate management company. But Abe hates the job and shows his resentment for not having his laziness rewarded by wearing a t-shirt and sweats to an office where everyone else is dressed for business.

He meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, and after making a weak but surprisingly aggressive come-on ("I don't dance," he announces, sitting down next to her while everyone else dances around them), he calls her for a date. She's too polite to say no, but forgets the date; undeterred, he waits in his car until she comes home -- from shopping.

They sit and talk and, apropos of nothing, with the kind of confidence carried by those who aren't able to pick up on cues from other people, he asks her to marry him. To his shock, she eventually agrees, after making a speech about finally giving up and settling for what she can get ("This isn't as terrible as it could be," she sobs, wrapped in his arms).

But before the wedding, she confides a secret to him: She has Hepatitis B, which is contagious but treatable -- but also dangerous. Oh yeah -- and now he's been exposed.

Suddenly, the guy who probably never had a date has to decide where he draws the line with the only woman who has ever given him a tumble, someone who has actually agreed to marry him.

Solondz is a master of squirm humor, pushing an audience by showing the disappointments and failures of people we already find off-putting and annoying. His films are like tests: At what point does the human quality of Abe's suffering -- as he undergoes a cascade of misfortune -- overtake your distaste for him as a person and push you to feel empathy?

It's not that Abe is a misunderstood genius who can't help himself. I mean, he can't help himself -- but that's because his every impulse is childish and narcissistic. "Serves him right," however, only goes so far.

Solondz finds the humor in the audacity of Abe's self-delusion and the response of his serious-minded father and his encouraging but clear-eyed mother (Mia Farrow). He also toggles easily back and forth between Abe's real world and the fantasies that he has, such as the one about his father's mousey secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy) -- that she secretly owns a mansion and is an off-hours minx who wants to jump his bones.

Dark Horse is a comedy of discomfort about a guy who doesn't understand the difference between a dark horse and a dead end. If you can plug into Solondz's dark view of human need, you're in for an intriguingly weird ride.

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