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Justin Theroux’s Dedication is aching to be an edgy Garden State. The actor’s directorial debut, written by first-timer David Bromberg, premiered at Sundance and reeks of the festival’s hipster-courting preciousness, telling a love story that’s freighted with the angst of its protagonist and the messiness of life in general. Reality bites and all that.
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But instead of insight, Dedication offers a world in which artists don’t comb their hair and a headache in one scene means a brain tumor in the next. And though you’re not necessarily supposed to like the film’s central character, his trials might have been worth caring about if he hadn’t walked right out of a Staind song. Henry (Billy Crudup) is an obsessive-compulsive, self-loathing children’s-book author who tells kids there’s no Santa Claus. He’s in his early 30s but still talks about how his father screwed him up. His friendship with a much older illustrator, Rudy (Tom Wilkinson), helps fill that void, though even Rudy refers to his partner as “a miserable shit.” When Rudy dies, Henry mourns by going into full-on asshole mode. Wait, he’s not an asshole: He’s complicated.
Or that’s what we’re supposed to think when Lucy (Mandy Moore) is forced into his life. Henry’s publisher (Bob Balaban, a dim highlight) hires the struggling Lucy to replace Rudy, but first she’s gotta convince the writer that she’s worthy—a battle that nearly makes her give up the promise of a $200,000 bonus upon completion of a Christmas project. They meet in a diner, where Henry proceeds to make up a wretched backstory about their waitress—down to the number of eggs left in her ovaries, because he’s just that thorough and clever—and concludes it with, “You’re much more pathetic than she is.” In his apartment, Henry suggests they exchange brief bios. His includes an extensive list of quirks and the quite serious declaration, “Life is pain.” Hers includes a syllable or two before he basically tells her to shut the fuck up.
Worse than Henry’s grating character, however, is Dedication’s bait-and-switch. Its invasive, too-cool soundtrack is dominated by the indie-rock band Deerhoof. Its characters spout psychobabble like, “We communicate through damage.” And Theroux adds flashes, static, and jitters to his camerawork to reflect Henry’s jagged psyche. But at its unpleasant heart, Dedication is nothing more than a by-the-numbers romantic comedy that is sure to alienate anyone who actually digs its depressive vibe. That’s right, the pair fall in love, and the only thing more difficult to believe than their attraction is the story’s abrupt adherence to Hollywood conventions—particularly the Big Gesture, which in this case is arguably more ludicrous than you might expect from even a typical Moore movie.
As usual, though, the actress isn’t nearly as bad as the scripts she chooses. Her Lucy may be mussed and kohl-eyed to the point of cliché, but her performance itself is relatively even and refreshingly adult. Crudup’s performance is naturally more attention-grabbing, full of tics and mood changes that in a lesser actor’s hands might seem gimmicky. But a skillful portrayal doesn’t count for much when your character is too ridiculous to hate.