"Dark Horse" is an unexpected entry from Todd Solondz. The director of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness" and other movies that give new meaning to the term "black comedy" is known for pushing the envelope further than just about any other American filmmaker. His past work was filled with such troubling themes as pedophilia, rape and abortion.

But "Dark Horse" has none of that. And when it introduces us to its determinedly upbeat protagonist, Abe (Jordan Gelber), it appears that this might be a surprisingly upbeat comedy. But though there's more optimism here than in the rest of his films put together, "Dark Horse" still contains the Solondz trademarks: unpleasant people who have resigned themselves to an unhappy ending that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That's not to say "Dark Horse" isn't fun to watch. Solondz's films are not normally the kind you say you "enjoy," though you might have real respect and admiration for his difficult work. With situations less merciless than in his previous films, "Dark Horse" allows you to give in to the writer-director's dark humor without feeling nearly so guilty.

On screen
'Dark Horse'
3 out of 4 stars
Stars: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow
Director: Todd Solondz
Rated: Not rated (adult language)
Running time: 86 minutes

Abe is a boy-man, a type familiar to contemporary cinema, though rarely this real. The 35-year-old collects children's action figures and still lives with his parents (a hilarious Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow). But he drives an expensive bright-yellow Hummer and coasts by doing the minimum as an employee at his father's company.

At a wedding, he meets Miranda (Selma Blair). The thin, austere, dark-haired beauty looks out of Abe's league. But it turns out the insecure writer is just as troubled as he is -- and lives with her parents as well. When she reluctantly agrees to a date, Abe jumps at his chance. "I'm just a dark horse at heart, but I always just tell myself, 'Abe, go for it,' " he explains to her before proposing marriage. She doesn't answer at first, but Abe is unworried. "Let's just push that aside for now. You want to go to the movies, go to the mall or something, pick up some tacos?"

Can these two searching souls find redemption in each other? The movie's second half isn't quite as good as the setup: The more we see Abe's inner fantasy life, the less real the film feels. It's a shame, given how few movies these days offer us characters so unbearably true.

Gelber, best known for creating one of the roles in Broadway's naughty puppet musical "Avenue Q," is a tour de force here. Just because Abe is unlikeable doesn't mean we can't come to care for him. He and his director manage something impressive here: They make misanthropy amusing.