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Arrested development 

"Dark Horse" & "Ruby Sparks"

Not so fast, you. This might not be one of those times when you can skim the first and last paragraphs of a review to quickly learn whether the writer liked the art in question. Honestly, you could read the whole piece and still not figure it out, which can only mean that you're about to enter the realm of writer-director Todd Solondz. If you've seen his past work, like 1995's "Welcome to the Dollhouse," 1998's "Happiness," or 2004's "Palindromes," then you already know that Solondz doesn't make movies for you to enjoy, exactly. Solondz revels in holding a mirror up to our collective ugliness, and, unlike other filmmakers, he's perfectly content to let us squirm on the hook indefinitely.

The big problem with Solondz's constant provocation is that it hasn't always been easy to grasp the necessary heart, truth, and resonance amidst all the envelope-pushing pedophilia, incest, and cruelty often found in his pitch-black comedies. But "Dark Horse," while still ultra-Solondzy, actually feels a little more mature than his previous work. It tells the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a doughy, 30something shlub who still lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in a teenworthy New Jersey bedroom crammed with action figures. And, as if outward appearances weren't bad enough, Abe is a jerk, a tantrum-prone slacker who treats the world like it has somehow wronged him. Nothing is ever Abe's fault, and he's allowed to run roughshod over the few people that care about him.

Abe meets the obviously uninterested Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, where our pushy hero manages to wheedle a phone number out of the pretty but sad-eyed damsel. He proposes almost immediately, yet he's not so deluded as to be shocked when she soon accepts. Miranda, who also lives with her parents, is in freefall over a failed relationship and literary career, reasoning in her depressed monotone that she should "give up on hope, ambition, success, independence, self-respect" and just get married. But since Solondz has never trafficked in happily-ever-afters, the weird, twisty road that Abe and Miranda must walk is paved with stubborn store clerks, prosperous brothers, dream sequences, neglected spreadsheets, and Hepatitis B.

It's rather gutsy whenever a filmmaker bases a narrative around a truly unpleasant human being, because that whiny loser needs to elicit empathy in less than two hours, and his growth had better be authentic. Solondz is mostly successful, employing a late-act curveball that's a little too convenient but not entirely outrageous, allowing Abe a glimmer of clarity without a complete overhaul of his repugnant personality. Gelber's performance is unflinching, and he's well-matched by the underappreciated Blair in a role that's all subtlety. But Farrow and Walken might be the keys here; her doting indulgence and his stone-faced reluctance to rock the boat providing clues as to how Abe got that way. Solondz fans hoping for something meaner will be disappointed, but everyone has the right to evolve.

By now the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a cinematic staple, the quirky, unstable beauty who pedals into a man's life on her vintage Schwinn and helps make him better. It's male-daydream hogwash, and screenwriter Zoe Kazan helps to deconstruct the cliché — at least temporarily — in the decent romantic fantasy "Ruby Sparks," Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's directorial follow-up to 2006's smug "Little Miss Sunshine." Paul Dano stars as Calvin, a frustrated author whose muse returns once he begins writing about the woman (played by Kazan) who appears in his dreams. Then, in one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios, she actually materializes and begins a relationship with the lonely Calvin.

Both as scripter and actor, Kazan lends this trope a sorely needed female perspective, especially when Ruby turns out to have hopes and needs of her own beyond providing unconditional support to a man too self-absorbed to notice that his creation also has a soul to accompany her recent flesh and blood. Supporting ringers like Elliot Gould, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, and even the hammy Antonio Banderas inject a little frothy fun whenever things threaten to get too heavy, and I love that real-life couple Dano and Kazan aren't Hollywood-gorgeous; their everydayness makes them seem much more relatable, even if the situation they find themselves in totally isn't.

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