' Cinema Romantico: Dedication

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dedication

In the near future, mark my words, Billy Crudup will get a film role that's mainstream, but not too mainstream, with complexity and bite, and he will knock the thing so damn far outta' the park they might have to stop production midway through and just give him the Oscar on set. But as good as he is in Justin Theroux's "Dedication", and he is good, this isn't it. But it also isn't his fault.

Crudup is Henry, an author of children's books but also a misanthropic mysogynist. Henry and his illustrator Rudy Holt (Tom Wilkinson) have brainstormed an idea for a new book about Marty the Beaver and I'll let you discover from where said brainstorm develops. The book does well and contractually the two men are obligated to put out another book for Christmas. Tragically, Rudy dies and so Henry is left without his mentor and essentially his only friend. Enter Lucy (Mandy Moore), whom Henry's publisher offers a bonus of $200,000 if she can manage to wriggle a new Marty the Beaver book out of Henry in time for the holiday season.

We know, of course, that Henry and Lucy will fall in love and I had high hopes the movie could get us to that plot development authentically and originally. For awhile it seems to entertain that possibility, primarily through the work of our two leads. Crudup does a lot with not much yet again by making Henry's assortment of tics seem plausible and as we go through the various stages of him falling for Lucy he convinces us that, maybe, he is changing a little bit. In one breathless moment the movie stops and stands still as Henry lists all his tics for the benefit of Lucy. "I have a rag I can't throw away because it might have feelings."

Mandy Moore is Crudup's equal. I will admit to having said some unflattering things in the past about Ms. Moore's acting ability but I take it back - I take it all back. Lucy brings her own baggage to the dance but she has not allowed all optimism to be beaten from her. She is sweet, but wounded. (In fact, that's the new match.com profile for me. I want someone who is sweet, but wounded.) Moore allows herself to spend a majority of the film in an uncomely parka, her hair askew. These characters with these fantastic performances attached to them seem ripe for a full-on exploration, a movie that goes for the soul and follows these two all the way down the road to the end, not betraying who and what they are.

So why oh why did it have to turn into a by-the-numbers romantic comedy? The problem with "Dedication" can be traced directly back to the screenplay. You can see the potential romantic comedy seeds being planted - the huge bonus that Lucy hides from Henry, and Lucy's boorish ex-boyfriend - and I suppose I should have known better but my allowed myself to hope and as Morgan Freeman once told us, "Hope is a dangerous thing". Instead "Dedication" melts away under too many montages and Henry finding out about the bonus as a means to drive away Lucy so she can go back to the boorish ex-boyfriend for no other reason than to allow a scene of Henry coming to grips with what he has thrown away so he can then literally run after his one true love to declare his feelings (which Crudup manages to sell pretty well) in a public place. As all this was unfolding I actually said aloud to myself, "Why did you have to go here?!"

And don't even get me started on the device of having the deceased Rudy hang around as some sort of figment of Henry's imagination. Yes, I understand this is supposed to represent the fact Rudy was Henry's only friend and Henry can't let go of him but 1.) the writer should have made that known in the first 15 minutes and 2.) Rudy keeps showing up so Henry has someone to whom he can exposit dialogue.

There's nothing wrong with a pleasurable romantic comedy but when your movie has the potential to be more, when you have characters who seem intent on standing outside the romantic comedy genre, when you have two actors so clearly willing to go for broke, why not take a chance?

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