Henry (Billy Crudup) is an irascible, OCD-withered writer who hit the big time creating a beloved children's book character with his partner, Rudy (Tom Wilkinson). When Rudy passes away, it leaves Henry without a friend and artistic guidance, leaving him unable to complete a new book for his greedy publisher. In a panic for product, the company sends young illustrator Lucy (Mandy Moore) in to help nurture Henry out of his funk. While Henry immediately dismisses Lucy and repeatedly insults her, he soon grows to value her company, finding that she's more important to him than he originally thought.
"Dedication" has these tentacles of classic indie filmmaking: low budget, feisty actors, hipster soundtrack (by Deerhoof), and prickly sentiments of attachment and personal care. It's the directorial debut of actor Justin Theroux (best know as the Irish bad guy in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"), and he's packed his movie with dependable components to achieve at least a mild pass at starving artist torment. However, his inexperience at guiding the whole enterprise shows.
I used the term "romantic comedy" earlier in this review, and that's a bit misleading. "Dedication" is neither romantic nor much of a comedy, stewing in more complicated juices of attraction and vocational torture than hugs. It's Theroux and writer David Bromberg's examination of the frosted heart, here using the vessel of an unpleasant OCD jerkoff with serious social disorders. That's a steep hill to climb just on a basic audience-welcoming level, and it's encouraging to watch "Dedication" achieve at least a semblance of emotional authenticity.
What's stopping the film is Theroux's needless editorial vision, where jerky, flashy cuts take the film from scene to scene. It's intended to visually represent Henry's fractured world and the general itchiness of the life he leads, but it looks ridiculous. Imagine the editing of the most banal MTV video in current rotation, and that's fairly close the style Theroux is looking for, complete with "Matrixy" electronic crackles with every flash cut.
Theroux is much better with his actors, using Crudup's addiction to insular emoting wisely to soften what is a very distancing character. There's no room to root for Henry, since he's essentially an arrogant, cruel loner. Only in the actor's subtleties does the performance find humanity, which the script requires for a third-act jog through intense formula.
The real surprise is Mandy Moore, who dials down her heavily-emphasized vocal inflections to play (with a great amount of sincerity) an open-wound artist who responds to Henry's attention, however mean-spirited it becomes. Funny what dark hair and heavy eye-makeup will do to an actress's boundless (and some might say extremely limiting) sunny disposition.
"Dedication" doesn't have much to say about the artistic process, and, again, the film is not touching in the least. Perhaps it won't grab the soul the way Theroux intends, but it does have in its favor an art-house comfort about it that's enchanting, recalling a leaner era when idiosyncratic affection was less precious.