Ladies and Gentlemen, the Not-So-Fabulous Stain
by Justin Stewart
Sympathy for Delicious
Dir. Mark Ruffalo, U.S., Maya Entertainment
God works in mysterious ways. Thatâ€™s the lesson that Mark Ruffalo got behind a camera for the first time to deliver. It might not seem so at first, but the actorâ€™s directorial debut, a â€ślabor of loveâ€ť that he says took him ten years to make, hides a soft, spiritual heart underneath its edgy faĂ§ade of bearded homeless angst and scummy â€śthrash rock.â€ť Its hero has a mystical healing grip that he must learn to accept, but since heâ€™s acknowledged by a priest friend as Godâ€™s conduit, heâ€™s the anti-Paul (that already forgotten, Seth Rogenâ€“voiced, smugly atheist alien who could also cure with a touch). The Catholic-raised Ruffalo and screenwriter-star Christopher Thornton canâ€™t be faulted simply for wanting to create another Christ allegory for our times, but almost all of the choices theyâ€™ve made in going about it are baffling. Hinging on an uneasily swallowed supernatural gimmick, and full of out-of-touch rock band clichĂ©s, Sympathy for Delicious begs the question: is it all a joke? It even ends with the Bee Geesâ€™ â€śI Started a Joke.â€ť Ultimately, noâ€”though there are stabs at comedy, the movie, in all its incoherence and absurdity, comes from an earnest place.
The â€śDeliciousâ€ť of that grotesquely awkward title is Dean Oâ€™Dwyer, a paraplegic Angeleno living out of his car who DJs under the name Delicious D. Thornton, himself wheelchair-bound with a broken back, plays D as a mostly unlikable cauldron of resentment and self-pity. He has reasons to be surly. Before his motorcycle accident, he was a hot talent making a name for himself in the club scene. Now, wheeling onstage for a set one night, he complains that the table is too high, only to be insulted and ejected by a callous club stooge. Though his hateful churlishness (a defense mechanism) might rightfully earn him his isolation, a large-hearted priest (Ruffalo), who feeds D and the other lost souls that inhabit their particular skid row near some godforsaken L.A. underpass, compassionately suggests faith healing. D scoffs, but he starts to take faith more seriously when he learns that he has the power to heal invalids with an extended, concentrated touch. This makes him ghetto-popular (the small slum division boasts a dazzling variety of disabilities and illnesses), and Father Joe spies an irresistible opportunity to bring money to his mission. But thereâ€™s a caveat that ruins the miracle for Dean: he canâ€™t heal himself.
Between homeless-healings, D is also reentering the music world. Rocker Ariel (Juliette Lewis) knows his talent, and she invites him to try out with her bandâ€”please wait for itâ€”Burnt the Diphthongs. It is during all of the band scenes that Ruffaloâ€™s filmâ€”again, unless itâ€™s really all a jokeâ€”turns alarmingly tone-deaf. First of all, their music (sub-Orgy mid-90s industro-grunge) is terrible, an objective fact that goes unacknowledged. And thereâ€™s the casting. As the contemptuous and confrontational lead singer who spouts pretentious edicts (â€śWeâ€™re anti-melodyâ€ť; â€śTitillate the massesâ€ť) as laughable as his stage name (The Stain), Ruffalo has cast Orlando Bloom, an actor who, as far as I know, has never made anyone laugh. Heâ€™s been Legolas and Will Turner, but as this more mundane â€śbadass,â€ť the English actor is neither intimidating nor amusingâ€”his overdone caricaturing is wrong for the movie. Also wrong: a coasting Laura Linney as the band manager who takes offense to Dâ€™s rudeness. Her heavy eye shadow is a clever touchâ€”a lame attempt to blend into a young personâ€™s worldâ€”but the character is superfluous.
His record-scraping adds another appropriately discordant texture to the bandâ€™s sound, but D is dismissed, until he recklessly burns, then cures, one of the members. The Stain sees dollar signs, and Burnt the Diphthongs embark on â€śHealapalooza,â€ť a string of evangelical circuslike shows during which D heals audience members while the band blares on. D, who felt used by Father Joe, is all too happy to cynically capitalize on his unasked-for gift, and he finally lets it go to his ego. Visually, this means turning into a sedentary Dave Navarro, all fishnet, eyeliner, and a thick coating of douchiness. In Ruffalo and Thorntonâ€™s moralistic world, this selling out cannot pay, and Dâ€™s rise dutifully devolves into spiritual decay, hilariously rendered as a 1930s-esque cautionary exploitation-style montage of pot, pills, puking, and tits. Itâ€™s a prickâ€™s comeuppance, as D slowly, painfully learns that it is not his legs that need healing at all, but his skeptical, self-centered attitude.
Ruffalo simply canâ€™t contain his movie, which has a self-destructive mind of its own. Gone rogue about forty minutes in, Sympathy for Delicious is lost well before its third act even resorts to courtroom scenes. Thereâ€™s a howler when Father Joe is asked if D is really a healer. â€śGod is the only healer,â€ť he says. The prosecuting attorney: â€śObjectionâ€” speculation!â€ť The literally drive-by Los Angeles photography is forever shakyâ€”Ruffaloâ€™s substitute for a styleâ€”and he favors harsh orange filters for the exteriors and grubby, underlit interiors. On the soundtrack, Canadian bands Do Make Say Think and The Besnard Lakes provide moody-ambient relief from the Stain and companyâ€™s noise, but thereâ€™s no respite from the narrative jumble. These might just be Ruffaloâ€™s growing pains, but he, Thornton, and Delicious D clearly lost the map somewhere along this spiritual quest.