Somebody Call a Doctor

Sympathy for Delicious is an uneven tale of music and faith healing

The popular and reliable actor Mark Ruffalo makes his directing debut with Sympathy for Delicious, an odd, confusing, ugly and mostly indigestible movie about religious hysteria and rock ’n’ roll—two subjects I find about as interesting as opening a tattoo parlor. I wish I liked the movie half as much as I like the actor.

Delicious is a DJ (called a “scratcher” in the underground Los Angeles club scene) whose real name is Dean O’Dwyer. He is played by co-producer Christopher Thornton, who also wrote the screenplay. Who is Thornton? Somebody must have a lot more faith in him than I do.

After a motorcycle accident leaves him paralyzed, Delicious gives up his job and his hope. Filthy, hirsute and forced to live in his car on Skid Row, he rolls his wheelchair through homeless shelters and soup kitchens until a dedicated priest named Father Joe (played by Ruffalo) helps him discover a secret talent for faith healing. Instead of using his calling to help others, he decides to parlay it into his own self-advancement for fame and money.

The key to success is to join forces with a creepy rock band. The bass player is a junkie named Ariel (Juliette Lewis), the lead singer is a screaming mound of pierced cacophony called The Stain (an unrecognizable Orlando Bloom), and their ruthless manager is a tough cookie named Nina (Laura Linney, slumming, as a favor to her friend Ruffalo) who smells money in phony spiritualism. One touch of the DJ’s hand and the blind can see, people with emphysema start breathing and lines form at the box office.

Father Joe says in all of his years of helping the sick and disenfranchised from Africa to the favelas of Rio, he has never seen such miracles, inviting his diseased and dying masses to fill his collection baskets, urging Delicious to live like a bum while he heals. The Stain and his rock band invite the sideshow freaks of acid rock to watch it like a new kind of show business. Both factions are exploiting Delicious like nothing since Joan Crawford in The Story of Esther Costello, and he’s caught in the middle.

The movie tries to make you feel like a heel if you side with capitalism, but in all honesty, what’s the point of using a special gift if you can’t better yourself at the same time? (Besides, Father Joe’s donations are doubling and he keeps Delicious in rags.) So Delicious joins the band, which markets itself as a “bizarre scratch rock healing punk show,” denounced by religious protesters and the American Medical Association, but anointed “The New Church” by its fan base. Delicious rakes in the dough faster than a Park Avenue call girl, although it doesn’t improve his wardrobe, and he never buys a razor.

It’s Ariel the pill-popping bass player who starts out a freak but develops a moral conscience in the process of ripping people off. When she overdoses onstage in a chemical stupor, Delicious goes on trial for manslaughter and … but why go on? I didn’t believe a word of it. This depressing, crudely made film shows Ruffalo’s inexperience; developmental material crucial to the narrative is reduced to blurry montages; the cast is not up to the overwrought melodramatics; the final 10 minutes are laughable as they sink in pretentious incoherence; and whatever point the movie intended to make is drowned by the shrill, clangorous soundtrack. Sympathy for Delicious is populated by so many good people who ought to be better that it’s hard to ignore. But sympathy, for Delicious or anyone else, eludes me totally.

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