The world may not need an indie version of the recent Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore vehicle Music & Lyrics, but actor turned first-time director Justin Theroux delivers just that in Dedication, a strange fusion of romantic comedy fizz and gloomy arthouse brooding. Why choose between making the kind of goofy comedy where Dianne Weist totally embarrasses daughter Mandy Moore by finding the vibrator in her freezer or a quirkfest filled with death, mental illness, bile-filled misanthropy, fantasy sequences, and moody atmosphere when you can have both in the same movie?
A characteristically intense Billy Crudup plays a bitter, hate-filled superstar children's book author successful enough to make the rest of the world cater to his formidable neuroses. When his illustrator/best friend/platonic soul mate (Tom Wilkinson) dies, Crudup loses his last tenuous connection to the outside world and sinks into a deep depression. Crudup needs Wilkinson so badly that not even death can sever their bond, and throughout the film, Wilkinson posthumously serves as Crudup's analyst, life coach, and cupid once Crudup begins to fall for neurotic illustrator Mandy Moore. A stressed-out single gal hired to illustrate Crudup's new book, Moore wins his respect, and maybe his heart, after standing up to a harrowing gauntlet of abuse. The film needs Wilkinson just as much as Crudup does. Like its jittery protagonist, it's lost without him, pitched awkwardly between nervous introspection and crowd-pleasing formula.
In the grand tradition of romantic comedies, Moore's earnest conviction thaws Crudup's jittery iceman and reignites his passion for life. But Crudup gives far too self-possessed a performance to allow Moore any points of entry. He's a rock and an island even when he's supposed to be falling for her. Crudup and Moore circle each other wearily without really connecting, so the romance feels forced and unconvincing. Theroux gets great performances out of much of his supporting cast, especially Wilkinson, who dominates the film even after his character dies, and the always-dependable Bob Balaban as an editor slyly maneuvering to keep his panicky golden goose from getting away. Crudup delivers a bracing, uncompromising performance, but it's unmistakably a solo turn in a romantic comedy that's supposed to be about the blurring of egos and the fusing of two idiosyncratic voices into a single harmonious duet.