Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A bi-polar love story attempts to surface in Paul Dalio's TOUCHED WITH FIRE

How do you legitimately dramatize the plight of bi-polar/emotionally-challenged individuals without, on the one hand, giving into sentimentality and the urge to placate the feel-good crowd, or on the other making the movie so damned real and therefore often unpleasant that it can't possibly pass for entertainment? Writer/director Paul Dalio (shown below), who, according to the press notes on this relatively new movie -- it was made back in 2014 under the title of Mania Days but is just now being released theatrically as TOUCHED WITH FIRE -- has himself struggled with bi-polar disorder and here creates a kind of love story between two approaching-middle-age people who both suffer from this disorder.

Dalio has indeed managed to probe, with the help of his two lead actors -- Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby -- a couple of interesting and for the most part believable characters: two would-be artists with some but not (from what we see here, at least) major talent in their respective fields of fine art and creative writing who bond during their simultaneous stay in a progressive and relatively easy-going mental institution. Mr. Kirby and Ms Holmes, shown below, connect with each other believably, while expressing their hugely up-and-down mood swings with the proper passion and deadness, anger and joy.

Unfortunately, however, there must be a story to connect all this, and the one that Dalio has come up with is noticeably lacking in believability now and again. From the outset he stacks the deck too heavily against his protagonists by saddling them both with parents who repeatedly accentuate the negative so far their child is concerned. (Granted, the children do this very well all by themselves.)

As played, and well, by Griffin Dunne (Kirby's character's dad) and Christine Lahti (Holmes' character's mom), these two repeatedly rail against the actions of their kids instead of trying to encourage, as well as modulate and/or circumscribe, those actions.

As usual, in scenarios such as this, the question of taking one's medicines -- which might and probably do curtail creativity and energy to some extent -- becomes paramount to the bi-polar, with results that are not helpful to anyone. To this end, the filmmaker inserts one scene featuring Kay Redfield Jamison, the woman who wrote the book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament that evidently helped inspire this movie. In that scene, Ms Jamison reassures the pair that taking lithium has not diminished her creativity. However, the scene clunks badly and seems out of left field. In any case, the Kirby character does not appear to be convinced by Ms. Jamison's words.

During the pair's "up" times, the movie can get a bit too cutesy (placing a sleeping potion into the coffee cup of the hospital guard on duty) and, much worse, far too unbelievable (as in the duo's later escape from the authorities, which looks downright ludicrous).

Finally the movie asks us what it might take for the world to allow two enormously problemed people to roam free, live, marry, conceive and wreak havoc upon themselves and probably others. Unless, of course, they take their medicines. As the end credits roll, the movie offers up a list of supposedly bi-polar artists throughout history. Most of these people are now dead, and so their bi-polarity cannot so easily be proven. But the list may work for some viewers as a kind of apology for the behavior that accompanies the art.

As you might have already gathered, all of the above proves a tricky balancing act, which unfortunately, the filmmaker fails to manage. At one point toward the finale, Kirby's character asks, "Are we a mistake?" This is a haunting and very sad question to have to ask about oneself. I would not want to hazard an opinion regarding these two people. But I have to say that, in some important respects, the movie about them certainly is.

From Roadside Attractions and running a bit too long at 110 minutes, Touched With Fire opens this coming Friday, February 19, here in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the Aventura Mall 24 and the AMC Sunset Place 24, after making its theatrical debut this past weekend in New York and Los Angeles.

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