(USA - 1997)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Skeet Ulrich, Bridget Fonda, Christopher Walken, Tom Arnold, Gena Gershon, Lolita Davidovich, Anthony Zerbe, Breckin Meyer
Genre: Comedy/Satire
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Paul Schrader based on the novel by Elmore Leonard
Cinematography: Ed Lachman
Composer: David Grohl
Runtime: 97 minutes

A very underrated movie that for the most part defies genrefication (it's closest to a satire, but also very serious), convention, formula, and predictability. The movie is certainly cynical (it's Paul Schrader after all), but the cynicism is spread in directions that it's hard to be anything else about. That said, very little about the movie is "clear cut."

The movie is about what happens when people discover someone with special powers, in this case Skeet Ulrich as a person who heals though touch and then exhibits the stigmata. Ulrich underplays his role to show that, although he can do something great that most everyone else can't, he doesn't see himself as something special. Healing is just a good thing that happens through him on occasion. He's purposely ambiguous because the movie is more about the other characters trying to pull him in the direction that's beneficial to them. He does inhabit the world of each person he's around, but he doesn't do anything he doesn't want to.

There are two main people that try to exploit Ulrich, Tom Arnold & Christopher Walken. Arnold, who gives perhaps his best performance and steals many scenes in the process, is supposed to be Ulrich's friend, but really he sees him as a way to draw people and press to his Christian fundamentalist group. Arnold essentially believes that anything Ulrich does that isn't directly for that group, even healing people, is a useless and unacceptable waste of his gift. Walken, excelling in the sly non-committing conniver role
he seemingly was born to play, was an evangelist that had a very successful show, but he lost all his money when he took it from the South to Los Angeles. He's now down to conning people into buying recreational vehicles, but he sees Ulrich as his way to regain his former bankroll. He elicits the help of Bridget Fonda, who used to twirl a baton in his show, to find out information about the mysterious healer. Fonda & Ulrich fall in love, so she stops helping Walken try to use Ulrich and starts trying to protect him from
exploitation. She can't comprehend that, at least in his mind, he's not being exploited because he is choosing of his own free will and understands the ramifications of the decisions he's making. For the most part though, it's a love story when they are together because, like all Ulrich's relationships, it exists separately from everything else. Its purpose is to explore whether a man with heavenly powers can have a sexual relationship out of marriage without being stripped of them. This allows Schrader to delve a bit into his favorite subject, man spiraling downward.

One question the movie asks is whether Ulrich is really being exploited if the exploiters succeed? This may appear to be a stupid question, but it's not clear-cut like it may sound on the surface. Ulrich is able to convey that he is not na?e even though he's been "in hiding" helping people in an alcohol rehab center since he stopped being a monk. He started healing people when he was with the Franciscans, but it was kept quiet. He's not looking for money or fame, but he doesn't want to be sheltered all his life either. This is really where the media comes in because we know what will happen when they get a hold of the story, but we get something of a sense that he doesn't agree.

One reason he may not agree is that the media will come whether he wants them to or not. By having Walken handle his appearances and not taking any money from Walken for this service (if you can call it that), Ulrich isn't doing things on his terms or their terms. He also, in a na?e sense, actually isn't promising anything. Walken is not a good guy to have managing you because we sense that he'd say anything to get the buck, but Ulrich is uninvolved and detached from the whole process so he feels he doesn't owe anyone anything.

Arnold's attempted exploitation leads to the newspapers coverage of Ulrich, but he fails because journalist Janeane Garofalo only prints the material she sees fit, which means Arnold's group still gets no mention in a positive piece. Walken's attempted exploitation leads to Ulrich appearing on a popular slimy controversial talk show hosted by Gina Gershon, who brings all the attitude and sarcasm we love her for, including making fun of the pitiful rapper and "actor" that she "doesn't know" whether to call J or LL or Cool. The scene where Ulrich appears on her show makes the points you'd expect it to make if you are following the movie, but enough doubt has been created that it works beyond the statements.

One reason the movie is successful is that Paul Schrader stays in the background. It asks a number of interesting questions about exploitation, religion, gifts "from god," and the role of the media, but Schrader doesn't force his views on us like Oliver Stone or overrated Spielberg would. This allows for a number of valid interpretations, but can also be misinterpreted if you fail to see the irony in the characters.

Speaking of misinterpretations, this film is not a comedy. It's a great script, adapted from an atypical Elmore Leonard novel, that has a number of lines that are funny. The thing is it's not played for comedy because that would go against the seriousness of the satirical characters and the actual points would be lost in the laughs. The subtlety we get forces us to see the material on more than one level.

Schrader doesn't have near the visual style of the brilliant director he often forms the best writer/director tandem with (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Bringing Out The Dead), Martin Scorsese, but you always get a great script and standout on screen performances (with the exception of beyond hopeless Richard Gere, but even gerbil man almost looked like an actor). Even the much-maligned Lolita Davidovich, playing a stripper whose son was healed by Ulrich, is very effective and entertaining here in pointing out the hypocrisy of Arnold's beliefs. Touch is not one of Schrader's great films like Mishima, Light Sleeper, and Affliction, but it's successful because it makes you reflect on so many different topics without losing its entertainment value.




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