THROUGHOUT HIS SLOW-BOIL of a career, filmmaker Todd Solondz has made champions, or at least protagonists, out of society's outcasts. But unlike Judd Apatow's endearing dorks, Solondz's losers are often the opposite of lovable. (See Happiness's predatory pedophile.) Even Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn Weiner, Solondz's most pathetic and beloved character, was forced to reveal a repugnant dark side.
In his new Dark Horse, Solondz tracks what might be his most beguiling freak yet. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a balding, overweight thirtysomething man who lives with his parents in his childhood home, in a bedroom packed floor to ceiling with toys. But unlike The 40-Year-Old Virgin's bike-riding man-child, Abe drives a neon-yellow Hummer, says things like "I know I'm a great kisser," and, when a beautiful and mysterious young woman (Selma Blair) crosses his path, has no qualms about courting her, immediately and aggressively.
The pathetic Abe's towering self-possession drives Dark Horse's good and squirmy first half, wherein our repellant hero rages at the world like an overtired 8-year-old, with every other out-breath some variation of "It's not fair!" Gelber's performance as Abe is a marvel, a full-blooded, seemingly spontaneous embodiment of a singularly clueless jerk.
But before long, Dark Horse spins out of even Abe's narcissistic control, opening up to bold splashes of fantasy (Solondz's dreamscapes, tellingly, look pretty much like real life). The whole thing builds to a quietly amazing final shot that recasts the whole of what we've spent the last 80 minutes watching. We're left with the possibility that much of what we call life is merely illusion borne of randomly overlapping solipsisms. It's a good, smart trip.