Mar 29, 2011

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Touch [15]

Dir: Paul Schrader
Touch is a bizarre film. It's got a weird cast, a tone that feels slightly off and a director who appears not to have quite decided which of two possible films he's actually going to make. This definitely means that Touch is not a lost classic, but it also means that it's never uninteresting, because it always keeps you on your toes.

The film revolves around a young former missionary named Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich, who looks so eerily like Johnny Depp you suspect he might be a life size action figure) whose apparent stigmata and powers of miraculous healing attract the attention of Bill Hill (Christopher Walken), a former church owner who now sells RV's for a living. In order to speak with Juvenal, Hill sends his friend Lynn (Bridget Fonda) undercover to the alcohol rehab centre in which he works. Juvenal and Lynn become friends, then lovers, while around them people vie to exploit Juvenal's gift.

Watching it for probably the first time in a decade, I was struck by the fact that there is something of a tug of war going on to determine what kind of movie Touch will be. Is it the relatively serious minded movie documenting Juvenal's relationship with Lynn? Or is it the knockabout comedy that contributors like Tom Arnold, Lolita Davidovich and Walken are performing in? Paul Scrader never quite seems able to choose one or the other, and the mix is often uneasy, especially when the two collide.

In and of themselves, both sides of Touch work nicely. In the comedy, Walken leads the cast, turning in a deliciously loopy performance, even more packed with odd inflections than his work tends to be. I like the details of his character too, the affectations like the huge gold chain that says 'Thank You Jesus' (ripped right from the source novel by Elmore Leonard). We really should hate Bill, he's no more than a cynical guy out for a buck, but Walken's profound strangeness is hard not to love. Tom Arnold also plays it broad as the leader of a group that wants to restore the latin mass to churches throughout the US, but he's less able to get away with it, because the character isn't really crazy enough to be funny, nor crazy enough to be threatening. However, there are plenty of laughs in Touch, be it the simple visual of the fact that the first thing we see a formerly blind housewife do when her sight is restored is begin sweeping up the dishes her husband has just broken, or Gina Gershon's brassy, up to 11 performance as a small time talk show host.

For me though, though it is less explored, the drama here is what is compelling. Juvenal is an intriguing character; a true innocent in many respects, but one who isn't naive. That's a rather fine line to walk, and Ulrich (despite being a bit young for the part) walks it well. You also see why Lynn would be attracted to him (aside from the fact that he looks like a young Johnny Depp, which I'm told helps) he's kind and gentle and unassuming, and these seem to be qualities that the initially pricklier Lynn wants to take from him. Fonda and Ulrich also exhibit nice chemistry together, and their friendship, which grows into romance, feels quite genuine (as I've mentioned before in this series, I imagine this is something that you can put down to the innate warmth Fonda projects on screen, even though she's somewhat muting it here, as if Lynn's dissatisfaction with her work and long association with con artist Bill have muted it in her). Neither performance has any great actorly moments, nothing showy is going on here, but that works to the benefit of the story, you buy into these two as simple, human, characters, which is remarkable in a film so otherwise full of cartoony personalities.

Touch is unfocused and doesn't entirely come together, but moments, scenes and performances work well on their own merits. It has ideas, but doesn't always communicate them totally successfully. It can be a frustrating watch, but at least it's a film that is reaching for something, even if its goal ultimately eludes its grasp.

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