Same old story: foreign director (in this case Danish filmmaker Susanne BierAfter the Wedding) makes an American debut movie that goes flop with a resounding clamor. Successful architect Brian Burke (David Duchovny) takes time away from his protective wife Audrey (Halle Berry), and two darling kids, to help out Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) his longtime friend-turned-junky. Jerry is shaken out his fleabag existence after Brian gets killed on his way back to the suburbs, and Audrey picks up the charity baton by inviting Jerry to live in her garage to clean up his act.
Allan Loeb’s mechanical script is riddled with so many Alcoholics Anonymous moments that it comes off as a rehab promo reel. Del Toro pulls off a tight-wire dramatic performance that keeps the film afloat, but can’t obscure the constant hiss of pop psychology that pierces nearly every scene.
The movie starts off at a deficit due to the miscasting of Berry, and more significantly Duchovny. The actors’ perfect skin coats the screen in a wallpaper sheen that repels all subtlety of character and life experience. An early scene, written to win the heart of the viewer, has perfect-poppa Brian describing iridescent light to his mop-haired son while the two hang out in their neatly lit backyard swimming pool at night. The cringe-worthy moment foreshadows the film’s tone of sugarcoated melodrama.
Audrey is vocal in her disapproval of Brian’s friendship with Jerry, who she views as a lost cause. The issue is a primary hitch in the couple’s relationship and it hints at too much windy protesting, so much so that we wonder if Jerry sired one or both of the couple’s children before his addiction took over.
From Brian’s point of view, we get that the two men have remained fiercely loyal over the years. One symptom of that allegiance comes through in Jerry’s perfect memory of details about events in Brian’s life and stories about his children that even Audrey doesn’t know.
The movie is about Audrey’s mourning process, and how she extends her deceased husband’s ideals to help Jerry recover. The scene that sums up Audrey’s confusion comes when she invites Jerry into her bed to use him as a sleep aid. Jerry’s discomfort with the intimate-but-platonic situation is offset by Audrey’s obvious exploitation of him as a kind of house slave.
Addiction movies are a losing-bet genre. Uli Edel’s Christiane F (1981) and Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) are the best of the bunch because they invigorate their stories with raw humor and pulsing soundtracks that propel the action that necessarily comes down to someone sweating in the sheets. They have a panache that sweeps up the audience in an active environment of reckless rebellion that confirms the cynicism of its characters.
But Audrey is a half-hearted skeptic making a half-assed attempt at helping a man she wants to sleep with, and whose children already look up to as a surrogate father. And yet neither the screenwriter nor the director sees the emotional motives at stake.
The only person who understands his impulsive wisdom beyond the shallow source material is Del Toro, and it’s his commitment to his role, and the story, that keeps things interesting.
Del Toro has yet to hit his stride as an actor because he hasn’t yet discovered the right director and project to let him run full out. But when he does, it will be a very special moment in cinema. MTW