Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dedication

DEDICATION (Justin Theroux, 2007)

Children's book author Henry Roth (Billy Crudup) finds himself in a bind when his illustrator and best friend Rudy Holt (Tom Wilkinson) dies. Henry is prone to crude outbursts and eccentric behavior, such as stacking books on his chest to comfort himself, which impede his ability to work with a new collaborator.

With the deadline bearing down on Henry for his latest book about Marty the Beaver, editor Arthur Planck (Bob Balaban) assigns Lucy Reilly (Mandy Moore) the unenviable task of replacing Rudy. The ample compensation she's offered will allow Lucy to break free from the controlling grip of her mother (Dianne Wiest), but it will be hard-earned considering the insults she has to endure from Henry.

Although positioned as a quirky take on relationships, DEDICATION'S romance isn't all that different from the professional bond that becomes more personal in MUSIC AND LYRICS. Works fades into the background as the unlikely lovers learn more about each other. Where the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore film is like enjoying a fizzy bottle of pop, DEDICATION is akin to taking a few swigs of vinegar, though.

Still, director Justin Theroux's film sticks to romantic comedy traditions and is rooted in two time-honored clich├ęs. Two people who dislike one another will fall madly in love, and the love of a good woman will be the saving grace for a damaged man. DEDICATION'S problem isn't its idealized conception of love but the thoroughly unconvincing way in which it is realized. Lucy takes Henry's verbal abuse with relatively little objection, which might be believable since she stands to rake in a couple hundred thousand dollars for her troubles, but the affection she develops for him is harder to rationalize.

At a lean 95 minutes, DEDICATION is both overstuffed and undercooked. (Its running time was 111 minutes when it played festivals, which may explain why this version feels incomplete.) In addition to the central concerns--Henry and Lucy's relationship and their progress on the book--there are also subplots about Henry's emotional health in general, his coming to terms with Rudy's death, Lucy's fights with her intrusive mother, and her confusion regarding an old thesis adviser (Martin Freeman) who wants to rekindle their affair. Cramming in these elements means giving short shrift to all of them, including the primary thrust of the film.

Theroux energetically directs DEDICATION, and the Deerhoof-laden soundtrack freshens and enhances the spiky tone in the narrative. Like many actors who step behind the camera, Theroux attends to the performances and gets good work from his cast. Crudup is very mannered but keeps the character's tics under control. He gets a nice scene when Henry declares his feelings near the end. It's not an easy admission for him to make, and Crudup almost redeems the film's shortcomings with this moment alone. Moore does the best she can with an underwritten part. Wilkinson sparks the film to life even if his character is dead during most of it. Balaban gives the kind of sly comedic turn expected whenever he appears in films. Only Wiest seems out of place, a matter due more to her character belonging in a more conventional picture.

DEDICATION bears the earmarks of a festival movie that stands out on the crowded circuit, where seeing four or five films in a day is common, but has its weaknesses revealed outside of that experience. Performance-driven by a name cast and quirky enough to seem unique, it's watchable, if not altogether likable. Separated from the festival hothouse atmosphere and viewed on its own merits, DEDICATION can be better seen for what it is: a director's distinct but flawed debut and actor's workshop.

Grade: C

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