Dark Horse, "while neither as probing nor as acidly funny as 2009′s Life During Wartime, might just represent the warmest film Solondz is capable of making," suggests Guy Lodge at In Contention. "That's not to say he's come over all Nora Ephron on us — the director still trades in emotional paralysis, and throws in Hepatitis B as a crucial plot point for good measure — but the film is colored by an overriding spirit of grudging compassion toward its Joe Schmoe lead Abe, a lonely, underachieving real-estate drone played with a kind of modest anti-charm by Jordan Gelber."
Abe is "a schlub in his 30s who still lives at home with his mom and dad (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) but who'd like to start a romance with the deadpan-to-the-point-of-deadness Selma Blair," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "Considering this is a Todd Solondz movie, you can guess how that works out for him, though Solondz at least acknowledges his character's humanity."
The Guardian's Xan Brooks: "For all his cheerful, self-aggrandizing chatter, Abe privately regards the world as 'a fucking cesspool' and is therefore much like Miranda [Blair], whose industrial-strength anti-depressants have left her fogged and woozy and prone to tears. 'I want to want you,' she whines to Abe. 'That's good enough for me,' he shoots back with a grin. So far, so involving. Except that it is at this point that Solondz seems to mislay his glasses and lose his focus."
"Dark Horse, accomplished and witty as it is, seems like treading water, at times even like a step back for a writer-director who is certainly among the most individual and downright intelligent of his generation," finds Jonathan Romney in Screen.
"What Solondz has done, in essence, is made a Kevin James movie," offers Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. "Indeed, relative unknown Gelber seems to have been cast as the representative of a certain 'Kevin James' type, and the first thirty minutes or so are easily the most mainstream of the director's career. Indeed, it could almost serve as the pilot for one of those schlubby-guy-hot-wife sitcoms. Of course, it can't last, and it soon becomes clear that it is a Todd Solondz joint through and through, albeit one tamer, even kinder, than previous films."
"Despite the still-widespread critical perception of Solondz as a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, all his films, from 1995's painfully empathetic Welcome to the Dollhouse to 2009's startlingly mature Life During Wartime, have offered at least half a spoonful of sugar to accompany their often extremely bitter medicine," writes Justin Chang in Variety, where Nick Vivarelli gets a few words with the director. "Solondz is nothing if not a dark-horse filmmaker himself, and given his penchant for auto-critique, the fuzzy narrative logic of the pic's final reels — with their push-pull between an unhappy ending and, well, a slightly less unhappy ending — could well be interpreted as an admission of his own complicity in his character's fate. Yet there finally doesn't seem to be enough going on here to invite or reward such pondering to begin with."
Updates, 9/7: "The trenchant intelligence is still palpable," blogs Jonathan Romney for Sight & Sound, "but the pleasures of this rather broader, visually lurid film are piecemeal — Gelber's agonised bumptiousness, Christopher Walken's preposterous hairstyle, and a fabulous support performance by Donna Murphy as the hero's fantasy cougar. Dark Horse is way smarter than the mainstream, but nowhere near the painful pithiness of Solondz's best."
"More than most of the director's films, Dark Horse is centered on one character rather than on an ensemble, to diminished returns," adds the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. "But beyond the belligerent Abe, what limits interest here is the directness of the script's presentation of a warped, stunted personality; what you see in the first few minutes is what you get, whereas the twisty narratives and outrageous revelations of Solondz's best films acrue to sometimes astonishingly perverse and bracingly nasty effect."
Update, 9/8: A 7.1 from Arnaud Macé in Independencia.
Updates, 9/9: "Dark Horse takes most of its running time to gradually comes into focus as a film about the contemporary Jewish-American experience," writes Karina Longworth for the Voice. "As in Wartime, here Israel is represented as a constant but flat specter in its characters' lives via wall art; but where Wartime's characters often speak to and of their distinctly Jewish angst (and particularly, the brand of post 9/11 anxiety special to Americans with ties to Israel), Dark Horse's act it out."
"The whole cast is splendid," writes Time's Richard Corliss, "from Blair, who played Vi the vamp in Storytelling (the closing credits ID her character as 'Miranda, formerly Vi'), down to the stubbornly smiling Toys'R'Us clerk (Tyler Maynard), who refuses to accept return of one of Abe's busted toys. Best is Murphy, who may be a wallflower or a cougar or the love of a loser's life. She sits at the side, then moves into the heart, of Solondz's most waywardly endearing film, his gentlest triumph."
Update, 9/12: "Notwithstanding the meandering script and occasionally blocky staging, Solondz has delivered a zanier take on his usual downbeat routine," writes indieWIRE's Eric Kohn, "but in this case the weirdness redeems the material rather than defining it."
Update, 9/13: "The big difference between this film and Step Brothers or Cyrus is that Abe never self-actualizes in the third act," writes New York's Logan Hill. "His charm doesn't make up for his very many faults; he doesn't change. He's still all empty bravado, and as such, Solondz delivers a timely, critical parable of unjustifiably overconfident American exceptionalism, which makes Solondz's uncomfortable cynicism even more disturbing than usual."
Update, 9/14: Eric Kohn interviews Solondz for indieWIRE.
Update, 9/15: For the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, "it feels like the filmmaker is actively regressing. I say this with regret, because few directors have brought the weight of such committed pessimism to bear on an oppressively optimistic American movie scene."
Updates, 9/18: "On the level of pure technique," writes Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, "Dark Horse is indeed Solondz's cruddiest-looking film ever, his customary matte lighting and offhandedly Constructivist suburban non-spaces replaced by a blobby digital ugliness that, sadly, doesn't allude to or comment on The Ugly…. All the same, Dark Horse could be Solondz's best picture in years…. [T]his film is in many ways the obverse of so many other Solondz joints, wherein misfits and lonelyhearts are beaten down for sheer sport."
Fernando F Croce for Fandor: "Characteristically full of derisive, kitschy details and unappetizing close-ups, it's a relatively gentle (by Solondzian standards) vision of emotional paralysis and deformed relationships, working best in its flashes of cutting cruel comedy (as when fantasy propels Donna Murphy from mousy secretary to cougar's cougar) and, especially, as the acid bath that the Rogen-Sandler-Ferrell axis of adorable arrested development thoroughly deserves."
For Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf, "even as the movie spins into hallucinations, it never makes more of a sharper point than Failure to Launch."
Venice 2011 Index. Dark Horse is competing in Venice and will be a Special Presentation in Toronto. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.