Written by: FFT Webmaster | April 28th, 2011
It is not an entirely new idea, but when actors make the decision to try their hands at directing, the results can often (not always) be quite interesting. A few have done it with sublime mastery (think Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack, Robert De Niro and Sean Penn). Of the newer generation, other celebrated actors-turned-directors include Sofia Coppola, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
This week, two new thespians turned directors are added to the elite fray. Vera Farmiga, the one time indie queen who made her first strong impression as a drug-addicted housewife in DOWN TO THE BONE (2004), has helmed her first film HIGHER GROUND, one of the strongest films to emerge from January’s Sundance Film Festival and now making its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, in which she also has the lead role, looks unsparingly at the religion in America in a way that is deeply personal and affecting. Playing a woman embracing, questioning and eventually abandoning her faith, Farmiga gives another outstanding performance, while also steering a full-bodied ensemble cast into deeply moving and provocative realms. The film, which offers an uncomfortably intimate look at religious practice made from an agnostic perspective, will no doubt generate great controversy when it begins its theatrical career via Sony Pictures Classics later this year.
Farmiga, whose supporting role as a driven corporate exec with a secret in the satire UP IN THE AIR won her an Oscar nomination, has been one of the most prolific actresses of the last few years, giving powerful performances in such diverse films as THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004), THE DEPARTED (2006), JOSHUA (2007), THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (2008) and ORPHAN (2009). She can currently be seen on the big screen in the indie caper film HENRY’S CRIME opposite Keanu Reeves and James Caan, and SOURCE CODE, the enigmatic thriller opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. She has recently been cast as the downtrodden wife in the filmed adaption of the Arthur Miller classic A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, which will be released next year.
Another recent Oscar nominee has thrown his hat into the ring of actors working behind the scenes. Mark Ruffalo was nominated for his sensitive performance as a sperm donor man-boy (a grown adult who is still an immature child at heart) in last year’s indie sensation THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. He has played this part in several other films, including his breakthrough role in YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2002), and such films as WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (2004), 13 GOING ON 30 (2004) RUMOR HAS IT (2005) and THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008). He has also attempted to rise above this stereotyping (although no one does it better than him) in such serious films as THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) COLLATERAL (2004), ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006), ZODIAC (2007), RESERVATION ROAD (2007), BLINDNESS (2008) and SHUTTER ISLAND (2010).
Ruffalo apparently had been looking for a project which he could direct for quite a while but finally settled on SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS, a comedy-drama about a homeless man who gets more than he bargained for when he seeks out the world of faith healing. The homeless man in question is Dean (Ruffalo friend and 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, creating a hellish netherworld out of which emerges the earthy figure of Joe (Ruffalo), an activist priest with a demon side. 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. The film also features a tour de force role for Orlando Bloom, playing the satanic figure of bandleader The Stain, who allows Dean to join the group as strictly a “sideshow freak.”
In this rather theatrical venture, Ruffalo has sketched out the good/evil dichotomy of a morality play that is complicated by the venality of the supposed good figure, the priest, and by the unvaulted ambition of Dean to be a star under any circumstances. It is not farfetched to seem this metaphor as expressing Ruffalo’s own ambivalence about his chosen profession, particularly the lure of Hollywood and its bad influence on those who work in the film business. Ruffalo, rather infamously, makes his home base in upstate New York and has not been silent about his contempt for the Hollywood system. The film, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is just now getting its theatrical release later this month via tiny Maya Distribution. This certainly betrays an uncertainty about the performance of the film for mainstream audiences. However, those interested to see what both Farmiga and Ruffalo can do when they call the shots, will be among the first in line.