The displeasure one feels in watching, or simply enduring, the indie dramedy “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You” is directly proportional to how throughly selfish and unsympathetic the lead character James truly is. When we’re first introduced to the misanthrope, he’s on the roof of his home in New York City with the family dog, whom he ties to a steam pipe, only to have it watch, obviously concerned, as he contemplates dropping himself to his death into the street below. And then toward the end of the film, when he comes across the dead body of a relative (oh, spoiler? — there will be more, and believe us, you don’t want to watch this movie), instead of trying to find help or alert someone, he calmly sits down and opens up the birthday present he was going to receive from them. These are the heights of his self-involvement, and everything in between isn’t much better.
Played by Toby Regbo, who bears an uncanny resemblence to a young Cillian Murphy, James is both a narcissist and hypocrite, who claims that most things people say aren’t worth saying, but he in turn is leading a fairly empty life. And the movie never makes it clear why we should care at all about this extraordinarly priveleged and lucky kid’s coming-of-age. His divorced mother (Marcia Gay Harden) not only owns an art gallery, but has set him up with job there too. Meanwhile, his father (Peter Gallagher) is ready to pay for him to go college, but James scoffs at the notion because he doesn’t want to be a “businessman or lawyer.” For a kid who who was gearing up to go to Harvard, he has a shockingly limited view of what career opportunities lay out there. So what has put him in this funk that keeps him mostly confined to his room or the art gallery? A variety of things, but mostly, “the Washington incident.”
Alluded to for a good portion of the first half of the film, it’s kept in the dark and built up as something that was potentially life altering for James, an event that deeply changed him. Instead, it was some kind of college class trip to Washington D.C. with those he would be spending the school year with. It seems James was forced to share a room with two stoners (the horror!), had friendship forced upon him by an enthusiastic big boned girl from South Dakota (gasp!), and caught the eye of an emphemeral sexy blonde with ambitions on being a fashion designer (double gasp!). This is apparently all too much for James who has an anxiety attack at a dance, runs away and checks into a suite at a hotel with his mom’s credit card, soaks in the jacuzzi and spends the next day at an art gallery. Why? Because he believes it’s one of the last places left in the world that doesn’t try to sell you something. We guess he missed the gift shop on the way in. Because he certainly didn’t see it on the way out when he’s chased by security guards after touching an old painting. James’ biggest problem is that he simply doesn’t know how to function at a very basic level in society.
And while, yes, some people do have problems with socializing, James is written so poorly and with such an open disdain for everyone around him, one suspects all of his actions are not the cause of a truly damaged soul, but of someone who certainly thinks nothing of anyone around him. An astonishingly cruel prank he pulls on his manager at the gallery midway through the picture underlines this, and does less to make us understand James, but only distances him further from any kind of relatability. He’s just kind of an asshole, instead of a Max Fischer-esque character writer/director Roberto Faenza wants him to be. But luckily for James, he meets a life coach/psychotherapist (Lucy Liu), who after three sessions rightfully concludes there’s nothing at all wrong with him except that he has “deep feeling.” We guess that’s a clinical term.
As if James’ self-involved travails aren’t enough, the tone of the movie is all over the place, a situation not all helped by the myriad of subplots. There’s his mother who starts the film returning home early from Las Vegas from what was supposed to be a honeymoon with her new husband (Stephen Lang), only to tell a sob story about how he snuck out during the night, hit the gambling tables and lost all their money. Through the movie, he’ll keep trying to win her back. Then there’s James gorgeous sister (Deborah Ann Woll) who is unconvincingly in a relationship with her much older, married and considerably…homely…professor. Not to mention his grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), the only person in the world he can talk to, who is mostly there to tell viewers the exact feelings James is going through. Now toss in ill-timed slapstick humor and repeated shots/cut to tiny dogs whimpering to underscore various comic moments (we’re not kidding), and you have a movie that wants to be spirited indie romp. But Faenza doesn’t have anything resembling a grasp on the material to pull that off. (Though we will say we’d pay to see a spin-off film with Siobhan Fallon and Aubrey Plaza reprising their roles as wacky mother/daughter real estate agents — don’t ask).
As the credits roll, we’re left with a lot of questions. How did Faenza manage to attract this many talented people only to waste their time with this script (and now did these folks get roped into this?). How on Earth did the movie win an Italian Golden Globe for Best Screenplay? We only imagine their Golden Globes are even more meaningless and bought than ours. “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You” winds up being the lesson James learns in a journey that ultimately teaches him very little, and finds him getting the good things in life handed to him anyway. And while that mantra might work for him, we strongly insist that any pain you experience while watching this movie will never be useful, anytime or anyplace. [D-]