In the world of film there are tales told that come from behind-the-scenes that are enough to make not only aspiring filmmakers crumble with despair, even seasoned veterans keep their fingers crossed and hope they never have to deal with such frustration and heartbreak. I'm talking about things that range from the cautionary tale that is pretty much Orson Welles' entire career, to Alfred Hitchcock's legendary clashes with David O. Selznick, to the mythological struggles of Werner Herzog to make films like Fitzcarraldo. But for all the nightmarish stories that surround films like Apocalypse Now or The Magnificent Ambersons, there are other, more obscure films that few people really know, and filmmakers whose struggles are not part of cinematic lore. Writer-director Tom DiCillo and his most recent film, Delirious, are perfect examples of an independent filmmaking nightmare come to life.
DiCillo's 1995 film Living in Oblivion was a hilarious, on-target look at the making of an independent film. Over a decade later, the comedic nightmare of Living in Oblivion remains one of the best representations of what it's like to make an indie film. By comparison, the behind-the-scenes drama that surrounded Delirious--most of the chronicled on his website--make for a chilling, gut-wrenching example of the fate that can befall even the best of films. As a well-received movie that played the festival circuit, Delirious was the victim of a theatrical distribution campaign that bordered on criminal. The result was a film that died a miserable death at the box office, and now only has a chance at resurrection on home video, where hopefully it will be "discovered."
Steve Buscemi stars as Les Galantine, a low-level paparazzi living in New York City., struggling to earn a living by taking candid photos of celebrities. Michael Pitt co-stars as Toby Grace, a young man living on the streets, who eats out of garbage cans and dreams of someday being famous. When Toby meets Les, the two men form an unlikely friendship, with the socially inept Les taking Toby into his home and giving him a job as his assistant. By a quirk of fate, Toby also meets K'Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), the beautiful pop singer that he worships. As Toby and K'Harma become close, the already emotionally volatile Les becomes consumed by blinding jealousy. Eventually, Les' lack of emotional stability and his social retardation creates a rift between him and Toby, destroying the odd friendship. But as Les withdraws back into his negative world of self-loathing and hatred for everyone else, Toby becomes famous when he lands a role on a reality television series; which only pushes Les closer to the breaking point.
One of the keys to fully appreciating DiCillo's wry comedy is to understand that Delirious is essentially a modern-day fairytale. The film is not grounded in reality so much as it is an examination of fame, celebrity and the nature of friendship, told in a contemporary setting with characters that some audiences might not recognize as fairytale archetypes. Les represents the classic misshapen monster like the troll that lives under the bridge, while Toby is basically the handsome prince who has yet to realize his destiny. K'Harma is the beautiful princess, trapped in a tower, awaiting a hero to come rescue her.
Recognizing Delirious as a fairytale is not a prerequisite to appreciating the film, but it does help. This is especially true when Toby begins his rise to fame, and the film begins to move farther away from reality. If you aren't on board with the way DiCillo is telling the story by that time, the third act of the film will be more of a challenge. And that's not to say that the film falls apart in the end, but it does become clearer that this is not the real world, and anyone trying to contextualize Delirious that way may have trouble appreciating what the movie is all about.
Delirious works on multiple levels, starting first and foremost with DiCillo's writing and direction, a wonderful mix of comedy and drama that seamlessly combines both a slick polished look and gritty edge. But DiCillo's work only takes the film so far, and it is the performance of Steve Buscemi that makes Delirious come alive. Buscemi has given great performances in a ton of films, but this work as Les is perhaps his best, most assured, and emotionally complex. Les is both simultaneously repugnant and endearing; a hopelessly pathetic cretin that still has enough fractured humanity that it is possible to feel something for him. He truly is some sort of misunderstood ogre out of a fairytale, and Buscemi brings it to the screen in a performance that DiCillo describes in the audio commentary as "Don Knotts on acid."
The chemistry between Buscemi and Pitt works to create a complex relationship that examines the inequities that often occur in friendships. On the surface, Delirious sets up Les to be the monster of the film, with Toby acting as the innocent hero, but the nature of their relationship is not that simple, which in turn is what makes the film so compelling. The rest of the cast, which includes Gina Gershon, Callie Thorne, and David Wain, also give great performances. Even Alison Lohman, who can be hit and miss, and brought Where the Truth Lies to a grinding halt with her wooden performance, does a good job.
Delirious is not a good as Living in Oblivion, which remains DiCillo's masterpiece. But it is a solidly entertaining film that serves as a wonderful companion piece to that earlier work. It also stands on its own as an examination of the phenomenon of fame that has spread like a plague throughout this culture. At a time when people like Paris Hilton can become famous and adored by millions for doing pretty much nothing, Delirious offers an intriguing insight into a world where people measure their self-worth based on the fame of others, even when that fame is not deserved. At the same time, the film is not so much a condemnation of fame as it is a look at how that particular state of being affects the lives of three very different people whose lives cross paths as they each grapple with what it means to be famous.
Delirious is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image transfer is very good, as is the picture quality, which has very rich, vibrant colors. The movie has a great look overall, from the production design to the photography to the way some of the colors were enhanced in post production, and all of that comes through in the transfer. Considering the poor treatment this film received in its theatrical run, I was expecting to see a DVD release that did not do the film justice, but that is not the case.
Delirious is presented 5.1 Dolby Digital. The sound is very good, with a solid mix that keeps the music from drowning out the dialog, and a good transfer that maintains quality levels.
On Tom DiCillo's website he recounts the terrible fate that awaited Delirious both during the production process as well as during theatrical distribution. If you want to hear about how bad things get for an indie filmmaker, check out his website, because for the most part he chooses to remain positive during the audio commentary. Sure, there is a bitter tinge to what he has to say, but DiCillo wisely avoids getting too negative about the process of making Delirious, which would have most likely been alienating for most listeners. Instead, the writer-director talks a lot about the creative process, and offers some very encouraging words given the obstacles he faced in getting this film to where it is now. There is a short, Stalking Delirious (13 min.), in which DiCillo and Buscemi discuss the film while walking the streets of New York. Three short promotional films created to publicize Delirious as both hilarious and painful, while at the same capturing much of the bitter truth DiCillo shares in his blog.
Delirious is an entertaining film that deserves more attention than it got theatrically. It is as intelligent as it is entertaining, and should be a treat for anyone who has ever looked at reality television or the likes of Paris Hilton, and seen therein the decline of western civilization. Fans of Steve Buscemi will especially enjoy the film, as this is one of his best jobs as an actor.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]