If Freddie Quell came back from World War II as an unhinged animal, Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro) is the polar opposite, an intensely quiet but no less wounded man, who is out of sorts in post-war America. But he is also a Native American, which brings to his life a whole set of experiences (especially at the time) foreign to common understanding, giving his plight an extra layer of complexity. It’s within this milieu that Arnaud Desplechin presents the true story “Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian),” a picture that meanders and focuses far too heavily on its subtitle, rather than on its two lead characters, who are presented with promise, but are ultimately left underdeveloped.
When we first meet Jimmy P., it’s three years after the war, and he’s at his sister’s home, suffering deeply. He’s plagued by crippling headaches, bouts of blindness and hearing loss, and tremors that leave him clutching the walls to stay standing. He is soon admitted to the Winter Hospital in Topeka, where he undergoes a battery of tests. His fractured skull doesn’t seem to be the problem, ruling out any physical ailments that may have affected his mental health, and his range of symptoms leaves doctors baffled, with an eventual and tentative diagnosis of schizophrenia weighed against Jimmy P. But a second opinion is sought…
…and in comes Georges Deveraux (Mathieu Amalric), a Hungarian psychoanalyst and Native American anthropologist, whose unique insights and understanding of Native people is hoped will help find a cure for Jimmy P. But the job is also a bit of a lucky break for Devereaux, whose credentials are on uneven standing due to his progressive views. But his knowledge of Native language and customs opens a door with Jimmy P., and soon, the pair undergo daily therapy sessions which, for better or worse, become the primary focus of the film.
Based on Deveraux’s own account of his meeting with Jimmy P., Desplechin seems utterly fascinated with their conversations (which the doctor transcribed in highly detailed notes), and the movie indulges in their very, very talky encounters, in the hopes that the audience will be just as compelled by these discussions. The problem is that the movie becomes more focused on diagnosis than character, and so what eventually unfolds is a meandering picture that only too late in the game leans toward highlighting any kind of thematic undercurrent while introducing romantic interests for the leads that do little but pad out an already too long running time.
For Deveraux, he gets a visit from his married, part-time lover Madeleine (Gina McKee), who serves to try and prove that there is more to the doctor that his obsessive focus on his work. Meanwhile, Jimmy P. strikes up a very casual relationship with a local Native woman, but it’s so undercooked (it amounts to about three scenes in total), that it adds little weight to the already very messy backstory that emerges during his sessions, helping to explain his current neurological problems. Towards the end of the film, Desplechin begins to lean toward a thesis about the toll of psychic damage on Native Americans in general following years of racism and other injustices, but it lands weakly, as Jimmy P.’s issues stem just as much from problems within his own family, as well as personal failings.
The largely interior, dialogue intensive picture sometimes veers into feeling like a TV movie (not helped by Howard Shore‘s often overbearing, obvious score) with its static visuals, but strong turns by Del Toro and Amalric (who thankfully ditches a sea of quirks early on and settles into the part) at least keep things engaging, even if the narrative remains stuck in neutral for large chunks of the film. After the sprawling, messy but rich “A Christmas Tale,” Desplechin falls short with “Jimmy P.” The mind may cure the soul for Jimmy P., but Desplechin can’t seem to find that quality in his own picture. [C]