The oddly titled Sympathy for Delicious which marks actor Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut has been making its second theatrical run in the Maya Indie Film Series. The story of a wheelchair-bound homeless DJ living out of his car who suddenly discovers he has the power to heal through the laying on of hands, the film won a special jury prize at Sundance in 2010, but has since received mixed reviews. It is a film that has a lot going for it, but it is also a film that has its flaws.
First of all there is the film’s lead. Dean O’Dwyer aka Delicious D (which explains the film’s title), is played by the lesser known Christopher Thornton who is also the script’s writer. Thornton and Ruffalo go back some years when they were both roommates and students of Stella Adler. He was working on a stage career when at age 25 he was paralyzed from the waist down in a hiking accident. Although he was confined to a wheel chair, Ruffalo and others made it their business to help him continue in his acting career. A few months after the accident he took the stage with Ruffalo in a production of Waiting for Godot. Since then he has done a good deal of stage work and some small film parts. Delicious D marks his first major role and he handles it with honest emotion.
Moreover, it has a supporting cast that many a director would envy. Ruffalo himself plays Father Joe, a skid row priest who wants to use the Dean’s gift to attract donations for a homeless shelter, and has to come to terms with his own spirituality. Juliette Lewis is a drug addled bass guitar player who tries to get Delicious D to audition to be a part of her band. Orlando Bloom is Stain, the band’s Mick Jaeger like lead singer. Laura Linney, masked in heavy eyeliner, though somewhat out of character playing the band’s tough broad agent, manages to pull it off effectively. Noah Emmerich has a small role as a paralytic believer who introduces the Dean to faith healing. Robert Wisdom, who I’ve been watching on The Wire and for some reason does not appear on the IMDb cast listing, shows up as a derelict and the DJ’s first healing success. This is a cast of professionals and they know how to do their jobs with professional skill.
Delicious D is caught between God and the devil. He has a divine gift. It can be used to help others; it can be used for money, drugs and rock and roll fame. Father Joe, perhaps selfishly, tries to push him one way; his own demons push him the other. In a rather traditional symbolic journey, he has to go through “the dark night of the soul.” He has to sink to the depths to rise once again. Unfortunately, it is in dealing with Delicious D’s descent and redemption that the script hits some bumps. His motivation is never really developed and his actions are not particularly convincing. Everything, both his fall and his spiritual redemption, seems rushed. The discovery of his healing powers, on the other hand, is handled much more effectively. In general, the script, especially in the third act, could have used some work.
For both Ruffalo and Thornton, Sympathy for Delicious was clearly a labor of love. It was a project they had been working on, revising and promoting for a good ten years. For a first time director with a first time lead performer, despite the problems, they managed to produce a film that can at times hit with an affecting emotional impact.