The jittery, just-before-the-film-runs-out-of-the-camera opening title sequence of “Sympathy for Delicious,” seems to intentionally (or maybe it’s unintentionally) call back the music videos that defined the early ’90s grunge rock scene. This makes sense, in a way, because so many of the characters in the film seem to have been drawn out of that particular flannel-shirted milieu. But that’s not the thing that makes the sequence so irritating. There’s something both arty and offhand about the sequence, in a way that draws attention to itself – it’s handmade quality that screams “Hey, look at me!”
And it’s evocative of the problems with “Sympathy for Delicious” as a whole. The directorial debut of eerily handsome character actor (and recent Oscar nominee) Mark Ruffalo, “Delicious” is the kind of fitfully preening indie drama that tries for profundity and visual grace but comes across as an ugly, cloying annoyance that has less to say (and much less to look at) that your typical Hollywood endeavor. It’s one of those low budget movies that took a decade to finish and all you can wonder is – Why did anyone try so hard for so little?
The movie begins in a faith healing church in Los Angeles’ skid row, where a preacher is claiming he can make men walk. It’s here that we’re introduced to the title character, a wheelchair-confined DJ who calls himself “Delicious” Dean (Christopher Thornton, who also wrote the script) and his paraplegic best friend Rene (Noah Emmerich). The preacher is obviously a fraud, and DJ feels hopeless (probably because he utters something like “This is fucking hopeless”). We then see him attending whatever the open mic night equivalent is for DJs, but can’t reach the turntables and leaves in a huff after only a few minutes “scratching.” He’s chased after by a grungy rock’n’roll chick (Juliette Lewis) who wants DJ to audition for their band. There isn’t any pause when she suggests this, although we were thinking “Wait, is this a period movie? Is this taking place during the whole Limp Bizkit/Incubus thing, where rock bands unnecessarily threw a DJ in there and rock anthems also had scratching?”
The next morning, Dean, who lives in his car in skid row, discovers he has the ability to heal others, but not himself (another character, typical of the rather on-the-nose nature of Thornton’s script, describes it as some “Salman Rushdie shit”). This discovery is miraculous, according to the kindly priest (Ruffalo), but Dean isn’t so sure, especially when the priest starts pimping him out to his enfeebled congregation. When Dean auditions for the part of the grungy rock band’s DJ, he’s also seized upon by the band’s charismatic lead singer The Stain (Orlando Bloom) – first as a freakish element to the band and then, after discovering his mutant abilities, as the centerpiece to a gaudy spectacle he dubs “Healapalooza.” At least Laura Linney shows up occasionally to ham things up as the band’s scheming manager.
If the Lollapalooza references and outdated musical cues weren’t evidence enough that this is a script that Thornton has worked on for the past ten years, then it’s the almost comic mishmash of thematic and narrative concepts that should certainly do the trick. Every few minutes some huge idea is introduced, completely at odds with the rest of the movie, which would sort of be admirable if it wasn’t so messy and the characters, across the board, so unlikeable. Thornton, who really is confined to a wheelchair following a climbing accident, is an intriguing enough character, but the central conceit of him being able to heal others but not himself is never developed beyond a sort of cosmic joke. In the end he’s just a grumpy asshole in a wheelchair. And he’s surrounded himself with such unbelievably large, unconvincing characters, that we’re not even sure what we want Dean to accomplish, if anything.
By the time the movie reaches its third act, it’s broken down and running on fumes, content to rely on a series of coincidences that eventually turn the movie into a bizarre, baroque, and typically hollow courtroom drama. (Yes, really.) At that point things stop completely and even the mild throb of interest that might have been coursing through the movie dries up. Ruffalo could be an interesting filmmaker one day if he chose material that wasn’t so dull and utterly lifeless (odd considering it at least attempts to be jubilant and life-affirming) and if he took a cue from the bevy of stylistic powerhouses he’s worked with before (Scorsese, Fincher, Mann, Gondry, Jonze, Woo) in an effort to make the movie actually look interesting. Instead, we’ve just got a complete clusterfuck of a script that’s directed with a leaden hand. The whole thing seems like it’s stuck in the mid-‘90s. We wish it would have stayed there. [D]