At no point is Sympathy for Delicious either sympathetic or emotionally delicious, a shame, considering its premise’s potential. The conceit of an angry, homeless paraplegic with divine healing powers could have gone so many directions: farcical, eerie, or even a little heartwarming.
Now that I’ve spoiled the plot a bit, the “Delicious” in question is Dean O’Dwyer, also known by the nom de turntable “Delicious D,” a poor-me bum living out of his car in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. A career as a rising star of nu-metal scratching—moving vinyl back and forth on a turntable to create distinctive fuzz—was upended by a traumatic motorcycle crash. We don’t see the accident; Christopher Thornton, the actor playing Dean who also wrote the screenplay, is himself a paraplegic.
Dean, having rebuffed faith healing in a near-cartoonish opening sequence of revivalist tents and carnival barkers, discovers this talent in a freak accident born out of an urge to get his quivering mess of a neighbor to shut up. It’s a short-lived moment of bliss, as the priest of the local mission (Mark Ruffalo, who also directs) turns his soup kitchen into a miracle clinic with Dean’s magic hands as the fountain of rejuvenation.
At the same time Dean tries to rebuild his “Delicious D” persona, charming his way through a strung-out Juliette Lewis into a hardcore band led by a miscast Orlando Bloom. Bloom, who is normally tolerable as someone else’s sidekick—the foundation of his CV is playing second fiddle to Middle Earth paladins and Caribbean buccaneers—winds up a pastiche of Spinal Tap. He either did no other research for the role or Ruffalo didn’t ask.
As a director, Ruffalo is all handheld and low angles, perhaps to insert the audience into Dean’s wheelchair-bound POV. His Los Angeles is grimy and dark, almost too much. Lewis and Bloom aside, the band is shot so dimly it’s impossible to tell the members apart.
Thornton’s script takes a few novel twists and tries some of its characters, though not always the ones who need testing. That another paraplegic bursting with faith (Noah Emmerich) finds redemption is both unnecessary and infuriating. Dean’s special powers turn his new band’s performances into “Healapalooza”—think the opening montage, but with Slipknot replacing the gospel choir. (The Besnard Lakes provide the actual soundtrack in a gauzy, shoegazing relief.) But Thornton’s primary goal is to show that a man in a wheelchair can carry a lead role that could just as well have gone to an able-bodied actor. He achieves this early on; unfortunately, his writing didn’t catch up with his acting talent.
Sympathy for Delicious, the film’s press notes informed me, is a parable. For what I’m not exactly sure. Father Joe, Ruffalo’s aspiring priest, and the band along with its manager—embodied by a vamping Laura Linney—are all using Dean’s unwanted gift for their own purposes—-venal, holy, or otherwise. Is religion bullshit? Is fame?
Maybe all of it. Greed and faith are interchangeable in a world where no one gives a shit about each other. Or, as Dean puts it at his breaking point between the clinic and the band: “Fuck it. As long as I’m getting paid.”