Finally, our last two reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival (other than movies we’ll be reviewing with their theatrical release). We’ll end things with two movies from New York City auteurs, one of them who is trying to reclaim the glory of his 1995 debut, the other who hasn’t had a movie released since 1998. Todd Solondz has made a lot of movies in recent years I found to be unwatchable, so his latest Dark Horse is a surprisingly pleasurable experience, while Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress is an extremely clever twist on college comedy stereotypes.
Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Starring Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Justin Bartha, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy
Having hated Todd Solondz’s last couple of movies with a passion, I went into the late festival screening of his latest movie with a combination of reticence, concern and sub-par expectations and discovered that yes, Todd Solondz can actually make movies that people can watch without cringing or feeling guilty if he tries.
“Dark Horse” opens at a Jewish wedding where everyone is dancing wildly except two people, the overweight but affable Abe (Jordan Gelberg) and Miranda, a pretty but chronically depressed young woman, played by Selma Blair. Well into his 30s, Abe still lives at home with his parents, played by Christopher Walken (how the hell has he not been in a Todd Solondz movie until now?) and Mia Farrow (ditto). As they leave, Miranda awkwardly gives Abe her phone number, but as he tries to woo her, he discovers she’s a lot more complicated than she appears.
Playing Abe is quite a tour de force for New York theater actor Jordan Gelber. He’s overweight and balding, a real manchild who collects action figures, but he’s no sad sack and quite optimistic in his status as “dark horse.” It’s a complex performance on par with De Niro in “The King of Comedy” and Gelber’s enthusiasm for this character is evident in every single scene. In a perfect world, Gelber would be considered Oscar worthy over pretty boys like Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
Abe’s father clearly feels contempt for the son who has been handed everything, including a job at the family firm. The office receptionist Marie, played by Donna Murphy in the second most impressive performance of the movie, constantly worries about Abe. She clearly has deeper feelings for him, though that could also be an imaginary Marie that Abe hallucinates to talk to her about his problems. In his later dreams, she transforms into a femme fatale who preys upon younger men, and the role’s a great showcase for Murphy’s talents that she’s able to pull off these very different character types with ease. Justin Bartha also has a tiny role as Abe’s successful doctor brother who he always feels a need to compete with.
One of the things that really gives “Dark Horse” a different feel is the use of upbeat pop music whenever Abe is driving around, and even the dialogue seems snappier and peppier than we’ve seen from Solondz. Another pleasant surprise is the heightened production values that make “Dark Horse” look infinitely better than Solondz’s last two movies, though this may also be a factor of the festival going all digital this year.
Even taking these things into consideration, Solondz seems unable or unwilling to give his characters anything even resembling a happy ending. As “Dark Horse” hits its last act, it just gets darker and more dour and weirder, as we start entering an “Inception” level of interlocking dream sequence. It’s a bit of a shame because up until that last act, this is Solondz’s most upbeat film since “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and his first since then that doesn’t make you feel like you need to take a long shower to clean off how ugly it makes you feel afterwards. Surely, that’s some sort of coup for the auteur filmmaker.
Damsels in Distress (Sony Pictures Classics)
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker, Billy Magnussen, Ryan Metcalf, Jermaine Crawford
It’s been thirteen years since Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco” and his latest movie is another great showcase for a number of great young actresses. This time, he plays with the type of college comedy tropes we’ve seen in so many movies over the years and delivers one of his most inventive scripts to date in trying to create a movie that feels like “Mean Girls” by way of “Mystery Team.”
We meet Greta Gerwig’s Violet as she’s looking for a new recruit for her posse, a strange group of girls who seem to have an opinion on everything but also are quite clueless about the simpler things as they run the “Suicide Center” at Seven Oaks by convincing patients to learn tap dancing rather than offing themselves. They find the perfect candidate in Analeigh Tipton’s Lilly, who starts out by questioning some of the things they do. Violet and her friends come off as quite rude due to their blunt nature and they’ve made quite a few enemies, especially among guys like the editor-in-chief of the school’s paper “The Daily Complainer.” At the same time, all of them have man troubles or “distress” as it’s called in the title, partially because Violet is into “losers” and dim-witted guys, and there are a lot of them at Seven Oaks. Lilly is into the handsome Xavier, who already has a girlfriend, so she allows herself to be courted by Adam Brody’s Charlie, who isn’t what he seems.
It’s a fairly odd movie even compared to the new Todd Solondz (and that’s saying something), but Whit Stillman’s sly and witty dialogue drives the entire thing with lots of clever twists on normal college stereotypes. He also has assemble a cast that can deliver his writing without the requisite nod and wink, instead playing all of it very seriously.
Gerwig is certainly appropriate casting for the type of role that requires her kind of dry and cool delivery, but she’s only good, not great. Analeigh Tipton had the unfortunate stigma of being the one unknown name and face in the ensemble cast of the hit comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” but here, she shows she’s the real deal and delivers a performance that really stands out. Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore also do a fine job playing Violet’s posse, although they each basically have one joke they repeat over and over. Since most of the guys are either acting dumb or like a “playboy operators,” it allows the women to really shine, and Stillman even fills smaller roles with the likes of Aubrey Plaza.
The tone and premise starts to lose some of its luster as the odd humor starts to get a bit tiring, and that’s probably about halfway through the movie, and while Stillman still has a few funny gags to bring in, like the fratboy who never bothered to learn colors, even that joke is overused to the point where it’s clear the well has run dry. After a while, it seems there’s very little purpose to some of the characters and bits, and when the movie ends with a couple of musical numbers, it seems like a lazy way to wrap things up after some of his more clever ideas.
Because “Damsels in Distress” is so frontloaded, one is likely to leave Stillman’s movie feeling somewhat disenchanted that it only partially delivers on the long wait for his return.
That’s it for our TIFF reviews, but check back later this week for our full TIFF recap with our list of “The Best of the Fest” (at least as far as the movies we had a chance to see).