A (Slightly) Lighter Shade of Dark with ‘Dark Horse’

The last time I interviewed Todd Solondz—one of independent cinema’s most acidic provocateurs—he joked that his agents were thrilled with his black comedy “Dark Horse” “because there’s no child molestation, masturbation or rape in it.”

“I was being a little bit flip,” Solondz said more recently, speaking by phone from the Czech Republic, where “Dark Horse” was screening in advance of its July 27 United States premiere. Even so, he admitted, he deliberately avoided the kind of “hot-button” topics that had sparked outrage in some quarters upon the release of his previous cringe-fests: Think sexually charged prepubescent bullying (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), pedophilia (“Happiness”), abusive interracial sex (“Storytelling”) and a smug Jewish family, obsessed with the Holocaust, whose members are gassed to death by a disgruntled housekeeper (also “Storytelling”).

“I was feeling burdened by all that I had addressed in my films,” Solondz, 52, said with a sigh in his trademark halting whine. “If I were to deal again with these sorts of subject matters, it might feel clich├ęd, or as if I were trying to shock for shock’s sake. But you don’t need those sorts of subjects to shock and surprise and provoke people.”

“Dark Horse” does provoke, albeit in a gentler way, by introducing viewers to Abe (Jordan Gelber), an abrasive, self-pitying shlub with a sequoia-sized entitlement complex. At 35, he still lives at home with his Jewish parents (played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in New Jersey, in a bedroom adorned with his meticulously maintained collection of action figures and comic books. The story unfolds, framed by a Jewish wedding and a funeral, as Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed beauty who also lives with her parents and who wonderingly remarks after their first kiss, “That wasn’t horrible.” Their often-humiliating courtship is Abe’s attempt to escape his underlying loneliness and despair—until a life-threatening accident violently rocks his worldview.

In some ways, Abe’s disappointments recall the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but Solondz had a different sort of protagonist in mind. “The film is a kind of alternative to the popular man-child genre exemplified by Judd Apatow’s movies and TV sitcoms; he is a tragic, real-life version of someone like George Costanza in ‘Seinfeld’—but he’s not de-Judified,” Solondz said. “Often, the perception of the man-child is someone cute and cuddly, but I didn’t want to sentimentalize it.”

“In a sense, I present Abe as a kind of test for the audience—to test their sympathies,” he added. “To what extent can we connect with those that we would rather dismiss or demonize? Abe is probably someone you don’t want to have lunch with, but in fact, here is someone who has a heart beating, and bleeding at that.”

Todd Solondz

During rehearsals, Solondz often reminded Gelber of Abe’s vulnerability: “Some people critique Todd for being really mean to his characters,” Gelber said. “But even when they might seem unbearable, you laugh because you can see the ridiculous in them, as well as the humanity.”

Abe’s obsession with collecting is his drug of choice, which “blurs into a kind of idolatry,” Solondz said. And Judaism certainly provides no tonic for the character, who wears a hip-hop “matzo baller” T-shirt and includes among his collectibles a Coca-Cola bottle inscribed with Hebrew letters. “The closest he gets to any religious expression is through this piece of capitalism, or consumerism,” said the filmmaker, who was raised in a kosher home but now describes himself as “a devout atheist.”

Solondz said he didn’t relate to the Jewish milieu in which he grew up in New Jersey, where, he said, “The Holocaust was a lively source of material at the dinner table.” If his films depict the Garden State as a kind of prison, he said, “I certainly felt from early childhood that I needed to escape. My parents’ social life circled around accountants, dentists or lawyers, but my fantasy was to live and work among people in the arts.”

Yet as much as he has critiqued Jewish suburban ennui, Solondz’s humor seems to come from a particularly tribal place, mixing tragedy with hilarity. He recalls attending a celebration of his films in Poland last fall, where, he said, “I couldn’t stop telling Holocaust jokes the whole time. They show you this wonderful, very chic kosher restaurant and, just outside, they say, ‘This is where the Jews were rounded up by the Nazis.’ ” “Oftentimes when terrible things happen, it’s the absurdity that makes one laugh.”

For all of his prickly observations, Solondz appears to have settled into the life of a contented family man. He married several years ago and is now the father of a 3- and a 1-year-old “who give me a great deal of pleasure,” he said. His wife lights Shabbat candles, a practice he respects even though he himself does not practice any religion. He won’t talk about his next film, save to say it is set in Texas, in case, “keinahora, we shouldn’t get the funding.” 

But he dismisses the notion that “Dark Horse” reflects any midlife mellowing. “I’m not in therapy,” he said. “I’m not that self-analytical.”

“Dark Horse” opens at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on July 27. The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen the film on July 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, with Solondz in attendance. RSVP required by 5 p.m. July 23 as space is limited. Reply to RSVP@americancinematheque.com; the subject line must read “Dark Horse.” Please indicate your first and last name and whether there will be one or two persons in your party. If you do not receive an e-mail confirming your RSVP, you are not confirmed for the screening.