What He Really Wants To Do Is Direct, by David Bax
It’s often said that a jack of all trades is a master of none. At this point, it can be stated almost without argument that Mark Ruffalo is a master actor, so it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that he’s a terrible director.
Ruffalo’s debut behind the camera comes with the unwieldy title, Sympathy for Delicious. With a name like that, you could be forgiven for thinking this might be another entry in the twee vanity project genre, alongside Zach Braff’s Garden State and Josh Radnor’s Happythankyoumoreplease. As it turns out, Sympathy defies any such easy labeling, which is one of the few things it has to its credit. This is the story of a homeless paraplegic named Dean O’Dwyer who lives out of his car and DJ’s under the name Delicious D. Then it gets weird. Dean is suddenly possessed of the ability to heal people by laying his hands on them. Then it gets weirder. Dean decides to use his power, and the notoriety it brings, to become a rock star. Then it gets really weird but I won’t spoil that for you, no matter much I disliked the movie.
All this bizarreness would probably have made for an interesting film if only Ruffalo hadn’t resigned himself to painting his world in such broad strokes. The other homeless people in the story have very little to offer in the way of characteristic other than being homeless. The Christian true-believer, embodied here by the wasted talents of the usually reliable Noah Emmerich, is presented with no more nuance than the term “Christian true-believer” would suggest. And then there are the rockers. Oh, boy.
Ruffalo presents the world of rock musicians with such a complete lack of understanding that I have to wonder if he’s ever been to a concert or listened to a record in his life. His view of the rock world is roughly the same as Woody Allen’s, all fashion and attitude, like the cast of some sort of exaggerated Vegas revue. Luckily, Allen doesn’t make films set in this world. The members of the band Dean joins actually have names like Oogie and, God help me, The Stain. They practice in what appears to be the basement of a dilapidated warehouse but they have a high-end manager with a fancy office. They guzzle booze dramatically and wear eyeliner and t-shirts with very carefully placed holes in them. If they existed in the real world, which this film most concretely does not, they would be immediately recognizable and dismissible as the lamest kind of poseurs.
What makes Sympathy even more embarrassing to endure is that the cast is so impressive, and trying so hard. Mark Ruffalo certainly seems like a nice guy and he must have built up a great deal of good will among his fellow actors to convince them to not only appear in these roles but to commit to them. In addition to Emmerich, there is Orlando Bloom as The Stain, Laura Linney as the aforementioned manager, Juliette Lewis as the troubled but charming drug addict or whatever, and John Carroll Lynch, who gets off easy by exiting the film after his first appearance, before the audience has grasped how misguided the movie is. Christopher Thornton, who stars as Dean, was very good in a season two episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm but is, like every else mentioned, imprisoned by the material and direction here. In fact, the only performance in the film that works is that of Ruffalo himself.
The director plays the charitable priest who discovers Dean’s ability and is changed by it in ways that may be good or bad. His is the most interesting storyline in the film and if it were about him (which it verges on being at times) it might be a much better movie. I don’t mean to imply that Ruffalo is a selfish person who wanted the only good scenes for himself. I’m implying that he’s not a talented enough director to make the other actors see the material the way it existed in his head.
Clearly, he’s unable to do the same for us, the audience, either. It’s generally unclear whether or not Ruffalo knows how bizarre his film is because there’s little in the way of a point of view. We’re left to wander among these stacks of clichés and add them up to a story all on our own. What they add up to is cringes, unintentional laughs and general gobsmacked feeling at just how thoroughly off the mark every element is in Sympathy for Delicious.
PS. The only reason I didn’t make a joke about the role of The Stain being a stain on Orlando Bloom’s resume is that it messed up the flow of the paragraph. Don’t think for a second I’m above that.