Friday, May 6, 2011

Sympathy for Delicious

(Sympathy for Delicious/Maya Entertainment, 2011)
      Sympathy for Delicious is, possibly, the sort of film nobody quite knows what to do with because it is a religious film. No other American film in recent memory has taken magic-realism so head-on, or presented the story of the rise and fall of one man with less irony. But first-time director Mark Ruffalo does it with this film. Even when it falls flat on its face, even when his characters have nowhere left to go but keep going, his film might announce itself in the mind of the not-completely-cynical movie-lover as something nearly as important as stained-glass in a cathedral. Let's call it a worthy decoration.
        The film, written by and starring Christopher Thornton, begins on skid row, or some version of it. We can’t imagine the real skid row having quite the apocalyptic charm or grimy sense of solitude this place has. But such is the whole look of Ruffalo’s film, which takes the form of a fable from the outset. We only get a real sense of what is happening when Dean O’ Dwyer, or Delicious D (Christopher Thornton) clasps his hands on the head of a homeless man suffering from dementia and causes him to fall back in to a heap of junk, looking somehow better. In the ensuing shot, a perplexed Dean examines his hands, a cigarette hanging from his mouth like a question mark. He is examining them because he felt something, and this something is the ability to heal people’s ailments through faith. We will see a lot more of Thornton’s hands in the film, because they are the most important image in the film. Dean is also a turntablist—hence the stage name “Delicious D”—as well as a cripple from the waist down. This man’s ability to heal others does not extend to himself. It does not even work on others one-hundred percent of the time. But it is enough for a priest named father Joe (Ruffalo), who has been trying to help Dean and others on skid row for years, to conclude that Dean is channeling the will of God with his healing powers. Father Joe then foists him on the downtrodden of skid row in an effort to gain donations in addition to healing them. 
(Sympathy for Delicious/Maya Entertainment, 2011)

            It is also enough for Dean to take matters in to his own…well, his own hands. He hooks up with a rock outfit that includes a singer called Ariel Lee (Juliette Lewis) and an affected guitarist known as The Stain (Orlando Bloom), who want him to heal people as their sideshow act. It is with this narrative branch that Thornton and Ruffalo apply their broadest strokes, but with these broad strokes come some of the film’s sillier qualities. One of the paradoxes of Delicious is that he is a self-destructive curmudgeon, someone more than willing to straddle the capitalist system whenever he gets a shot. But this paradox is numbed by the presence of the band members, in particular Bloom, who gives a self-consciously unsubtle performance as a rock star cliché. (Sympathy for Delicious may be a fable, but stereotypes remain stereotypes in fables.) It also introduces a wasted performance by Laura Linney as the band manager, Nina. Appearing in only a few scenes, Nina does not have much to do until the third act, when she is desperately given a few lines to deliver to father Joe, only then suggesting an inner conflict. Ruffalo does not have a superb sense of timing, and it is a pity that Thornton’s script can’t guide him more often. It even throws in a highly unnecessary final scene worthy of Spielberg.
            But what lifts Sympathy for Delicious above these tragic flaws is the sense that the film is invested in the spiritual idea of being flawed. The film could be a cinematic allegory of the first several passages of the Book of Genesis. Man is born, man is naïve, man is tempted by an apple, man picks the apple, incurring God’s displeasure. Or it could be a film that is earnestly, sentimentally, entertainingly—Ruffalo and Thornton do get entertainment—raises questions about faith.
            Faith, and Thornton’s hands. He sits in his wheelchair, in shots ranging from close-ups to extreme close-ups. Throngs of the sick and infirm poor surround him. The sun is out, but the scene looks faded, unsure of its light. Father Joe skids back and forth through the many bodies, patiently guiding the patrons to their server. Delicious D clasps his hands on heads and shoulders without hesitation, but always with reluctance. The healed always fall back, wide eyed, and a cry of awe is elicited from the crowd. A woman pulls off her emphysema mask. A man looks to the sky and wrings his hands. Delicious shakes his head as he fails to feel the surge of God’s will connecting to one man, one of the few non-connections that day. Father Joe pans a hat around, collecting wads of dollars. Delicious D knows of the wads of dollars and is tired of working in good faith under the sun, mobbed by the downtrodden. We will hear no evil, speak no evil. But what constitutes evil? The lord upholds all who fall and lifteth up all who are bowed down. The coming of God, the coming of God…
(Sympathy for Delicious/Maya Entertainment, 2011)