Dedication, the directorial debut from Justin Theroux, is a weird little movie. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing, Dedication gets a little too lost in its own weirdness, ultimately overwhelming what could be a sweet, unlikely love story.
At the heart of Dedication is Henry Roth (Billy Crudup), a basket case of a children's book writer who occasionally has to put heavy objects (encyclopedias or other large books, preferably) on top of himself to feel safe. The one person in the world who can tolerate his antics is his illustration partner, Rudy Holt (Tom Wilkinson), whose particular brand of tough love seems to calm Henry down. The two are working on a tough deadline for a children's book based on their character of Marty the Beaver (dreamed up, amusingly enough, in a porno theater) when Rudy dies suddenly of a brain tumor. That leaves Henry without an illustrator, not to mention without an anchor to the regular, non-neurotic world.
Enter Lucy (Mandy Moore), an illustrator plucked by editor Arthur Planck (Bob Balaban) to work with Henry. Henry spends most of his time trying to figure out just how insulting and nasty he can be to Lucy before she gives up and leaves him alone; considering she's been offered $200,000 if she gets Henry to finish the book (unbeknownst to him, of course), it will take a lot more than insults to get her to leave. It's a perfectly solid plot, but Theroux doesn't control the movie's tone enough to execute it well. To see what I mean,
The first half of the movie feels trippy and surreal, something straight out of a David Lynch film (an effect I doubt is coincidental — but more on that later). Henry, angry over Rudy's death, continues speaking to his dead partner in a series of dream sequences, shot with a choppy, deliberate camera effect. Crudup does a fine job of conveying Henry's various psychoses, and though much of his character is never really explained — why the books? why the OCD tendencies to rearrange the condiments at every restaurant? — he's interesting enough. One of Theroux's greatest strengths as a director is his use of music, and the soundtrack adds a lot to the story, with the disjointed sounds of Deerhoof giving an additional window into Henry's psyche and the more mellow Cat Power representing Lucy's calming presence. But in general, the effects are a little too strange to be useful; after the first couple of jolts into Henry's alternate reality where Rudy is still alive, the device felt tired.
But I still prefer the vaguely experimental tone of the movie's first half to the more standard love story it becomes in the end, because in all the trippiness, Theroux forgets to give us much reason to care about Henry or Lucy. Mandy Moore gives Lucy a good underlying toughness, but her character — who is also trying to decide whether to get back with her professor/thesis adviser (Martin Freeman) — isn't written deeply enough to understand why she'd put up with either of these guys. When the weirdness of the movie's first half starts to fall away, the story just feels empty.
Which brings me back to David Lynch. Theroux, who worked with Lynch on Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, wrote in the press notes for Dedication about how the legendary director had influenced his own style. So I suppose it's not surprising that Dedication feels like a clumsy attempt at taking elements of Lynch's films and applying them to a romantic comedy. But, well, even Lynch himself isn't famous for his great romantic comedies.