The Wandering Review: ‘Dark Horse’ and ‘Take This Waltz’
By Laurie Baron
SAN DIEGO — I had been looking forward to last week. Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse and Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz were opening in San Diego, and I knew both featured Jewish characters. Finally, I would have the opportunity to review movies currently playing in theatres for my column. Unfortunately, depicting Jewish themes was not pivotal to either film. This in itself may be significant. In his recent book The New Jew in Film (Rutgers University Press: 2012). Nathan Abrams observes that in the past two decades, some filmmakers, often from Jewish backgrounds, feature Jewish characters in their films even though their being Jewish “makes no difference to the trajectory of the story, plot, or narrative arc, except to insert a gag line or an ‘in-joke to be read by those who understand the cultural codes.” This phenomenon constitutes a manifestation of Jewish integration into American society. If the status of Jews is secure, then directors feel comfortable exaggerating or reversing Jewish stereotypes (as in Meet the Fokkers and Inglourious Bastards respectively) or focusing on the individual rather his or her group.
In Take This Waltz, for example, anyone familiar with contemporary comedy will recognize that Lou played by Seth Rogen and his sister Geraldine played by Sarah Silverman are Jewish. Yet that is not what defines either. Lou is a harder-working version of the kindhearted Jewish slackers Rogen has portrayed in Judd Apatow’s “bromances.” He has dedicated himself so much to writing a bestselling cook book of chicken recipes that he is oblivious to his wife Margot’s attempts to break out of their sexual routines. Indeed, their relationship consists of games and rituals that are as predictable as the fowl he prepares for every dinner. Guilty over the prospect of hurting Lou, Margot, sensitively acted by Michelle Williams, hesitantly gravitates to a neighbor as the alluring refuge from her unfulfilling marriage. Geraldine, a recovering alcoholic, dishes out advice whose soundness is as shaky as her sobriety. Margot’s emerging sensuality is mirrored in the brilliant palate of colors employed by cinematographer Luc Montpellier. This is a wonderful character study, but Lou and Geraldine could just as well be Gentile yuppies with relationship or substance abuse problems.
The Jewish trappings are more evident in Dark Horse. The audience first glimpses Abe at a Jewish wedding sitting at a table and conversing with the minimally emotive Miranda played by Selma Blair while the rest of the guests joyously dance. After learning that their birthdays fall on the same date of different months, he is convinced that this numerical coincidence has Kabalistic significance―though he distinguishes between Jewish and Madonnan Kabala―and asks Miranda for a date. She lackadaisically consents, perhaps to get him to stop annoying her.
Yet the hope that Miranda might be attracted to him shines as a light at the endless tunnel of Abe’s bleak existence. He still lives with his parents in a room that apparently hasn’t been redecorated since his bar mitzvah. Reading his Torah portion did not make him a man as indicated by the shelves in his room which are filled with action figures he collects and other toys like an oversized bottle with a Hebrew Coca Cola logo. He works for his father Jackie, a dour Christopher Walken who constantly nags his son to complete the company’s spreadsheets. When she’s not staring at the television with Jackie, Abe’s mother Phyllis, performed by a doting Mia Farrow, plays board games with Abe. The only member of the family who left the nest is Abe’s brother Richard whom he deeply resents for being the favored and more successful son.
It is plausible that Miranda is Abe’s beshert. With no career prospects, she too lives at home with her parents who are as dull as Abe’s parents. Whatever feelings she has are submerged under the fog of medications she takes to cope with reality. On the rebound from a failed relationship, she muddles into an engagement to Abe who proposes to her on their first date and does not retract it despite the revelation that she has Hepatitis B. She decides that marrying him and having a baby isn’t so horrible considering her limited options. Enthralled anyone could love him, Abe feels vindicated that he is a “dark horse” who will eventually prevail.
As things go terribly wrong in ways I won’t recount to avoid spoiling the film, Abe increasingly imagines encounters with people from his life who frankly confide their low esteem for him and fantasizes an affair with his father’s secretary Marie. In this role Donna Murphy manages to transform the protective office matron into a lusty cougar reminiscent of Mrs. Robinson. The line of demarcation between actuality and fantasy blurs with Abe realizing that relationships are not like the action figures he purchases at the toy store. They can’t be returned once the box is opened or replaced if you keep the receipt.
What then does all this have to do with Abe being Jewish? It is telling that he sports a necklace with a charm that spells out his name rather than wearing a mezuzah. Abe represents himself and all the losers in a world that rewards winners. As Solondz told an interviewer, “I don’t advertise that he’s Jewish but I don’t hide it either. There are obvious signs that he’s Jewish. It’s a secular Jewish family as well, so it’s not one that I would say is very observant either. In fact, his whole condition, this whole collection that he has…collecting in general it’s very much a phenomenon of secular societies.” If you are a fan of Solondz dark humor, you’ll enjoy the film and even empathize with Abe. If not, rent Fiddler on the Roof. The suburbs aren’t the shtetls, and pathetic schlemiels resided there as well as Tevyes. .
Lawrence Baron recently retired from being the Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University. He is the author of Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield: 2005) and editor of The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Brandeis University Press: 2011). He may be contacted at email@example.com
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