Title: Sympathy For Delicious
Director: Mark Ruffalo
Starring: Christopher Thornton, Juliette Lewis, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, John Carroll Lynch, Noah Emmerich
It’s not just about the free, high-end swag for celebrities, although that’s certainly nice. Of the many perks and privileges they are afforded, one of the more precious ones that can’t be entirely quantified is the professional line-jump pass that actors receive to jump behind the camera and into the director’s chair. Trading on their name-recognition value, they have instant credibility with an assortment of potential financiers, easily landing the sort of important creative meetings for which hundreds of would-be auteurs would punch out their own mothers.
Their efforts are typically small, independent-minded passion projects. This can result in some strange and pretentious trainwrecks (Nicolas Cage’s Sonny comes to mind), but also all sorts of worthwhile little curios, from arresting character pieces like Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning to deeply affecting dramas, like Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth and Tim Roth’s The War Zone. Toeing the line somewhere between these two poles is Sympathy For Delicious, Mark Ruffalo’s unusual feature film directorial debut, and the winner of a special directing prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Well acted but more dawdling and frustrating than dizzily engaging, this seriocomic entry is an arthouse effort through and through.
The story centers around Dean O’Dwyer (Christopher Thornton), an up-and-coming Los Angeles deejay who is paralyzed from the legs down in a motorcycle accident, sinks into a deep depression, and ends up on skid row. There he meets Father Joe Roselli (Ruffalo), who runs a local mission. In an odd twist of fate, Dean is revealed to have faith-healing powers, though his gift doesn’t work all the time, and he can’t heal himself.
At Father Joe’s somewhat self-serving urging, Dean assists others for a while, but his anger quickly gets the best of him. He then decides to cash in on his gift for fame and fortune, joining a punk-revivalist band represented by Nina Hogue (Laura Linney), fronted by a guy named Stain (Orlando Bloom, playing filthy and loving it), and inclusive of junkie guitarist Ariel (Juliette Lewis). The tension between their music, stage-show performance art and Dean’s amazing and mysterious medical gift eventually comes to a head.
Ruffalo, who came up in the theater and has had the benefit of plenty of stage directing experience, does a fair amount with not a very big budget, typically keeping the camera angles low and even with Dean, in order to reinforce an audience’s identification with him. (He also showcases a nice touch with his actors, as one might expect.) And the subject matter is certainly original. Thornton, a real-life paraplegic from the age of 25 on, when he fractured two vertebrae in a rock-climbing accident, penned Sympathy‘s screenplay, and it’s studded with the sorts of prickly, self-interested characters that Hollywood studio product too often avoids.
Still, while there are a few touches of dark comedy here and there, those expecting a more sharpened religious satire, a la something like Saved!, will come away disappointed. Tonally, Sympathy For Delicious is more than a bit of a mess. The movie presents its supernatural premise in a somewhat intriguingly unprepossessing way, but abandons early on any deeper exploration of its crisis of faith or, indeed, just human existence, in order to dive down the rock-n-roll rabbit hole — all to occasionally entertaining but in the end hopelessly middling effect. Given its bold narrative, the film feels overall like a big, missed opportunity; it sets up all sorts of fascinating and conflicting agendas, both interpersonally and intrapersonally, but then doesn’t follow through on them. Undeniably, the chief pull of the movie is its writer-star, Thornton. He has an engaging, surly charisma, even if his script roundly misses the mark in its stab at parabolic significance.
Written by: Brent Simon