REVIEW: Sympathy for Delicious [2011]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: April 29th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Maya Entertainment
Director(s): Mark Ruffalo
Writer(s): Christopher Thornton

“God is trying to say hello to you”

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Talk with any priest and he’ll most likely fit those sentiments in at some point. But what do those words mean? Are they mere shoulder rubbing for the devastated trying to reconcile what has happened to them? Are they empty words of men with nothing to say? The fact of the matter is, they are just words spoken whose meaning and worth lie with their receiver. We can disregard them as our initial desire demands in light of tragedy or we can meditate on them and seek an answer to the mother of all questions, “Why?”

For a paraplegic named Dean O’Dwyer (Christopher Thornton), God is a parlor trick. His name is used to instill hope, but to him all it does is cultivate blind faith. Here he is stuck in a wheelchair and living out of his car on Skid Row while a promising life as a DJ named ‘Delicious’ was ripped out from under him. He takes the handouts of Father Joe (Mark Ruffalo), he revels in surrounding himself with the poor degenerates he likens himself, and he lets all his anger rise to the surface. Dean doesn’t believe he can be saved; he doesn’t have the patience to go blindly into the unknown. To him there is only reality and his is trapped on wheels. He doesn’t want pity, the least of all from a God-faring paraplegic like Rene Faubacher (Noah Emmerich). But he’ll go with him to watch a charlatan, hoping despite himself that maybe someone is looking out for him. Maybe someone does have Sympathy for Delicious.

It’s all a sham, though. You know this and I know this. Dean swims in the promise of salvation and gets passed over as John Carroll Lynch’s sweaty orator points through him to the man behind. He lets himself get swept into the throngs of hope only to laugh at his own naivety. So it’s back to the streets, back to breadlines and the Disney-eye stares of liberal bleeding hearts wanting to lend a hand. It all just makes him retreat further into anger, seeing the freak show he has become. His affliction makes him different, noticeable. ‘Delicious’ Dean is a man who can no longer hide in the shadows, his vitriol put on display for the world to see until an uncredited Robert Wisdom crosses his path. Shaking and mumbling through the pain of gout and anguish of dementia this man is touch by Dean’s hand and miraculously healed. The whirlwind journey begins.

The directorial debut of Ruffalo and written by Thornton—a paraplegic since the age of 25—Sympathy for Delicious is a tale of faith and prostitution and the church that disseminates both. No matter what sort of stage Dean is placed upon due to his injury, the show that buys tickets for his power to heal is exponentially larger and more dangerous. Spinning his wheels and pretending he had accepted what happened to his legs at least meant he was able to dream. The fantasy of getting better might have been buried deep, but the want of joining a band and doing what he does best behind a turntable was still possible. That is what he wanted, that is what he would have prayed to God for if he could allow himself to ask. Instead, though, he was given the power to heal through touch. He was cursed to help everyone around him but never himself.

This is the message Thornton preaches. He shows us the psychological pain of suffering and finding oneself on the wrong side of accidental tragedy without the means to overcome. Where any compassionate, sane individual would look to the sky in thanks after healing a stranger of blindness or Emphysema, he only sees a cruel joke. He has this gift and all he wants to do is hide it away. The limelight isn’t what he wanted, at least not in this way. He wanted to play music onstage, to touch the suffering through sound and energy. To play with a bunch of cretins like The Stain (Orlando Bloom should be dementedly vile more often) and Ariel Lee (Juliette Lewis playing to type, but always with success) would be a dream come true, but now he was relegated to share with the world the one thing he’d never have. A contemporary take on the parable, this non-believer is led onto a path of redemption if only he allows his heart to receive it.

In this regard, I kind of loved the movie. Seeing the subversion of faith and the church is a laugh. The corruption in seeing Father Joe exploit Dean’s hands—albeit unintentionally through his own blindness to greed, no matter how righteous—is fantastic. This is just the type of cynicism I yearn for, but the execution isn’t quite there. With so much to enjoy in both acts, the bridge between is discovered to be too short and unsatisfying. Ruffalo directs it all with an artsy eye and gritty filter, but the script becomes lazy. Watching Joe use one of his own to satisfy selfish aspirations of greatness and seeing ‘Delicious’ turn his gift into a gimmick for fame and riches does work. We simply wait so long for Dean’s inevitable switch from used to user that the quick transition to his final chance at understanding the God’s plan becomes unforgivably contrived.

Where Thornton takes his characters is exactly where they should go, but the process rushes to reach its moment of clarity. Questions asked about civility, one’s duty to humanity, and self-righteousness pile on top of themselves only to be washed away by a jumpcut. A couple instances where souls are signed to the devil brought a smile to my face as well as the climactic scene of absolution despite its obviousness. I can understand why the story would want to end with amorality being forgiven as only God can forgive, but what made the film good was its ability to laugh at convention and skewer our perceptions of religion, karma, and faith. Maybe I’m just too cynical for my own good, though. Maybe wishing for the mean streak to continue says more about me then the filmmaker’s choice to bring everything full circle. Either way, there’s still enough to like.

[1] Christopher Thornton, left, and Mark Ruffalo in “Sympathy for Delicious.”
[2] Laura Linney in “Sympathy for Delicious.”
[3] Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis in “Sympathy for Delicious.”

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