Sympathy for Delicious does everything it can to disguise the fact that it’s ultimately a Christian morality play. But despite its gritty setting, unlovable protagonist, and bizarre turn into music-world satire, Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut can’t help but reveal the mushy heart we’d expect from a movie about a homeless man discovering he possesses Christ-like healing powers. The result is not so much a hard-edged take on potentially sentimental material, but an odd mishmash that leads to some headscratchingly bizarre moments, while ultimately skirting incoherence of purpose.
The homeless man in question is Dean (screenwriter Christopher Thornton), a formerly successful DJ fallen on hard times, confined to a wheelchair and living out of his car in Los Angeles’s skid row. Ruffalo shoots the homeless district with a combination of gritty verité and smoky surrealism (the latter highlighted by low-key lighting and a penchant for background-obscuring close-ups), creating a hellish netherworld out of which emerges the earthy figure of Joe (Ruffalo), an activist priest. When Joe discovers Dean’s gift, he gets him a motel room and sets him up as skid row’s resident healer. Soon the lines of the afflicted begin to grow and the donations start to pour in, but will Dean be satisfied with the $48 a day Joe is paying him?
Not likely, considering Dean is pretty much a prickly, self-obsessed asshole from the start, although given his homeless state and the fact that Joe is clearly exploiting him, one can hardly blame him. But when he has the chance to join a metal band as their DJ/healer, he quickly bolts and Ruffalo and Thornton set up what seems like a conventional good angel/bad angel dichotomy with the homeless man caught between the altruistic ministrations of Joe and the satanic figure of bandleader The Stain (Orlando Bloom), a poet/dark priest/dickwad who allows our man in the group with the understanding that his role in the band is strictly as “sideshow freak.” Dean confesses he only cares about the money.
The simple morality play is complicated by the fact of Joe’s own venality and willingness to exploit his charge, albeit for the good of skid row’s denizens and by the fact that there was never any doubt about Dean’s motives: as soon as he got the chance to be a star, he ran with it. This last development moves the film into some bizarre scenes as the band stages an event called Healapalooza with star attraction Dean laying hands on handicapped victims in the midst of a metal concert. Ruffalo’s surrealistic touches from the skid row sequences gain new impetus with the addition of the band’s loud amelodic racket as one more element in the director’s try-anything-once aesthetic stew.
But it’s but a small step from the (not quite) sublime to the ridiculous and Ruffalo’s film quickly degenerates into a round of limp satire, focusing not only on the band’s silly antics but on their manager’s (a deliciously naughty Laura Linney) contract shenanigans which combine hardline negotiating with sexual implication. When Thornton’s script cooks up a moment of unexpected tragedy, the film bottoms out, not only giving in to a what-the-fuck plot contrivance, but in the subsequent aftermath, defying its own logic—or at least casting aspersions on the competence of defense lawyers worldwide. Dean’s internal struggle, which was never much of a conflict to begin with, is resolved in its basest, most sentimental terms and all ambiguities are wiped out, paving the way for a conclusion that’s at once too literal in its whole-hearted embrace of the film’s simplistic message and unsatisfyingly open-ended as our man heads off down a (literal) road to nowhere.