Welcome back, Tom DiCillo.
The writer/director hasn't made a feature film since 2001, when his "Double Whammy" wound up going straight to video. Both that movie and the effort before it, "The Real Blonde," were stumbly, cluttered disappointments. Now, after years of struggling and a bitter fight with his distributors, DiCillo has delivered "Delirious," a wicked little comedy about fame, paparazzi, and desperation. It's not as sharp as his indie gems from the mid-1990s - "Living in Oblivion" and "Box of Moonlight" - but the thing's packed with bright performances and unique characters, which, as those familiar with his works may already know, is what DiCillo does best.
Michael Pitt plays Toby, a homeless youth who may be a bit too naïve for his own good. Which may explain why he'd want to befriend someone like Les, a photographer so weaselly he could only be played by Steve Buscemi. They meet while Les and a dozen other photogs have swarmed to wait for a glimpse of pop star K'harma (Alison Lohman) and her latest beau-of-the-week. Desperate for a place to stay, Toby offers his services as assistant, his only payment being a roof over his head. The two take to each other quickly, with Les showing Toby the ropes of the paparazzi game.
Here is where the film shines brightest. DiCillo's script and Buscemi's performance create a bottom-of-the-barrel creature whose every move is fascinating. The film walks a thin line, studying the life of the celebrity photographer but never quite mocking it. There's not much left to mock - Les is barely respected by his peers, and when we meet Les' parents, who've never approved of his choice of occupation, we discover that the poor guy can't even get relief from his own loved ones. Les is angry, bitter, determined to serve only himself. And Buscemi's portrayal is a knockout; he makes sure we understand him while neither pitying nor loathing him.
There's some terrific commentary about paparazzi and their relationship with the celebrities they chase. In one monologue, Les brags about a brief meeting with Robert De Niro, one of the few stars who was ever nice to him; to Les, a man treated with disdain everywhere he goes, a rare moment of kindness can translate as sainthood.
Later, he encounters Elvis Costello (playing himself) at a party. Les, accustomed to dealing with celebrities from afar, goes speechless. To Les, Costello is a commodity, not a human; his favorite picture is one of the musician without his trademark hat, a rare sight and a major score. More tellingly, he's afraid to reveal his profession to the musician, afraid of possible repercussions. Watch how Buscemi fumbles his way through this scene, and how DiCillo's words present a man so displeased with his entire state of being. It's a heartbreaking moment, full of sadness and shame.
But "Delirious" is not about Les, not really. It's actually about Toby, and how he goes from homeless to famous. Through a series of events that blend a sharp satire of the entertainment industry with a sort of modern urban fantasy (DiCillo has called his film a fairy tale), Toby winds up catching the eye of K'harma, and then Dana (Gina Gershon), a casting director who gives him the lead role in a new TV series. Toby uses his innocent charms to his advantage, although it's never clear if such naïveté is a put-on or the real deal.
From here, DiCillo goes broader and broader, offering an angry look at entertainment culture. The characters remain sharply defined, and the cast is uniformly solid, but the more famous Toby gets, the more the story begins to slip through DiCillo's fingers. The wild fantasies can never match the small-scale pleasures of the simpler character study of Les and his new apprentice.
DiCillo never loses complete control of his story, however, and his talents as a constructor of character-based works ensure that the real focus of this fantasy - the people who inhabit it - never ceases to entertain. DiCillo makes movies that are entirely his own, and "Delirious" is a welcome return to form.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer manages to capture the film's grainy, mildly saturated look quite well, without making the image look cheap. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack keeps most of the action up front, with emphasis always on the dialogue. Anton Sanko's lovely musical score comes through beautifully. No subtitles are offered.
DiCillo provides a breezy commentary track full of anecdotes and notes on the filmmaking process. The director is a natural talker, making for an informative talk.
"Stalking Delirious" (14:50) finds DiCillo and Buscemi walking through the film's various New York locations while trading behind-the-scenes tales and discussing the current state of independent film. The most interesting moment comes at the beginning, when the two stumble upon an actual paparazzo; Buscemi laments that any pictures he takes of them will only earn him a dollar or two. (Presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterbox.)
The three short films seen here were created for DiCillo's website as a means of publicly venting his frustrations over his movie's treatment by the distributors, who refused to advertise and provided only the tiniest of theatrical runs. "Delirious Marketing Meeting" (5:38) shows DiCillo in a fictional meeting with the marketing gang as they inform him they've cancelled most of the publicity efforts. "Steve Buscemi Is Pissed!" (4:09) is a clever fake conversation taped during a junket for Buscemi's own indie film, "Interview." "Gina Gershon Sex Tape" (3:55) finds DiCillo trying to talk his star into making a sex tape in order to drum up free press for the film. All are initially fun, although as they're essentially one-joke bits, they all run a few minutes too long. (1.33:1 full frame.)
K'harma's "Shove It" music video, as seen throughout the movie, is shown here in its full length form (3:36). It's amusing, but it's also another one-joke bit that wears thin quickly, working better in the movie than outside of it. (1.85:1 letterbox.)
The film's theatrical trailer (2:19), which tries too hard to play up the movie's quirky comedy angle, rounds out the set. (1.85:1 anamorphic.) In addition, a set of previews for other Genius releases plays as the disc loads.
While it loses its steam in its fantasy-driven third act, "Delirious" maintains enough clever character study to make it Recommended to fans of independent cinema.