Healing power of rock-and-roll
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 6, 2011
The directorial debuts of actors tend to give themselves away as such. All too often, they’re Actorly things, with a capital A. They overemphasize tortured characters and emotion — or sometimes emoting — at the expense of things such as cinematography, dialogue and storytelling.
In short, the performances upstage the films.
“Sympathy for Delicious,” the first behind-the-camera effort by actor Mark Ruffalo (who also has a supporting role), suffers from just such a disequilibrium.
It’s not entirely his fault. The film was written by Christopher Thornton, an actor who was paralyzed in a rock-climbing accident in 1992, as a starring vehicle for himself. It tells the story of “Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer, a once-promising DJ who has fallen on hard times since losing the use of his legs and who is now living in his car as he struggles to find a band that will recognize his undiminished scratching talents. The part practically screams “tour de force.”
As it turns out, Dean’s ability as a turntablist is not his greatest gift.
Dean, you see, is a healer. By accident, he discovers that his touch can actually cure people — of gout, Alzheimer’s, retinitis pigmentosa, emphysema, even horrible burns. At one point, he literally attacks someone with a torch, then lays hands on the freshly burned flesh, just to prove to himself that he isn’t crazy.
He may be convinced, but chances are you won’t be.
It gets worse. At first, a reluctant Dean is recruited by his friend, a Roman Catholic priest named Father Joe (Ruffalo), to heal some of Joe’s destitute and diseased clients at the Skid Row mission Joe runs. Joe believes that it’s the Lord, not Dean, who is working the cures.
But when word gets around town about Dean, and Dean sees the money that starts pouring in to Joe’s church in the form of charitable donations, Dean decides to strike out on his own. Or rather, to market himself as a kind of sideshow attraction to a rock band led by a messianic singer who calls himself the Stain (a histrionic Orlando Bloom). Their subsequent tour — spun as a punk rock revival meeting by a record exec (Laura Linney, oozing sleaze, if not plausibility) — is called Heal-apalooza.
You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you can, but you shouldn’t.
After one of Dean’s attempts at healing turns tragic, so does the film, if unintentionally. The last half-hour is a welter of recrimination, betrayal, reconciliation — and yet more preposterous miracles. With nowhere to go but up, the acting turns into a shouting match, with Ruffalo’s and Thornton’s characters bellowing things at each other such as “I’m not like you!” and “You sold me out!”
The problem is not the premise. Ruffalo and Thornton are to be applauded for the way they commit — both behind and in front of the camera — to such hard-to-swallow hooey. And it’s actually kind of refreshing to see a contemporary movie that deals so unapologetically — if a mite too pedal to the metal — with such issues as God and faith and personal responsibility.
But in its rush to ground the godliness in some kind of gritty authenticity, complete with dingy, under-lit camerawork, “Sympathy for Delicious” offers few moral — let alone theological — insights. It throws off a lot of heat but not much light. The higher power at whose feet it worships is not a healer, but a hambone.
Contains frequent obscenity, drug use, violence and brief nudity.