(Millennium) Josh Hartnett, Radha Mitchell, Gary Cole, John Carroll Lynch, Rusty Schwimmer, Erica Leerhsen, Nate Mooney, Sheila Kelly, Robert Wisdom. Directed by Petter Naess
Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism in which the patients are high-functioning, with a difficulty in socializing but an amazing ability to lock in on something that fascinates them, whether it is mathematics, trivia or molecular structure. They are often misunderstood as social misfits when in reality they just don’t have the mechanism to cope with social situations that the rest of us take for granted.
Jerry (Hartnett) is a New York cab driver who is afflicted with Asperger’s. He can add numbers in his head like a human calculator, but he has trouble carrying on a conversation without turning it into a non-stop soliloquy filled with random facts. He loves birds to the extent that many fly free in his terminally cluttered apartment, and he often takes one with him to work driving his cab (which begs the question; wouldn’t it fly out the door whenever someone got in or out?) much to the discomfort of his passengers.
Like many Asperger’s patients, he needs routine and structure and when things break out of the routine, he has difficulty coping. When he accidentally runs into a parked car, he gathers his things and walks away, leaving a group of angry people.
He belongs to a group of fellow Asperger’s patients, and he takes comfort in the presence of people he can relate to, even though some of them like Gregory (Lynch) can be a bit on the curmudgeonly side.
Into this group comes Isabelle (Mitchell) who has been referred to it by her therapist. She is the diametric opposite of Donald; where he is introverted and shy, she is straightforward and without fear. She is direct where he is not. She comes into his life much like a cannonball would come into a group of Civil War-era infantrymen and she has much the same effect. She invites him to a Halloween party and dresses up like Mozart; he puts on a rather disheveled whale costume and almost doesn’t show up because he is so obsessive about time.
Despite all the obstacles, the two form a romantic partnership that brings a brand new dimension into their lives. When Isabelle cleans up Donald’s apartment, he freaks out but eventually he begins to learn how to accept her presence into his life. When he realizes that they can’t afford the house she wants and the lifestyle they both want, he takes a job at a university in statistics where he excels. When he invites his boss over for dinner, it turns into a disaster largely in part to Isabelle’s inability to cope with the situation.
There is obviously a deep emotional connection between the two, but it becomes just as clear that their Asperger’s is getting in the way of their relationship. Will they be able to overcome something so deeply ingrained in them?
This is based loosely on real life couple Jerry and Mary Newport. Norwegian director Naess, whose resume includes the Oscar-nominated Elling, does a magnificent job in portraying the disease, so much so that the movie is often screened at legitimate autism conferences as an illustration of the social consequences of the disease.
Hartnett, who was reportedly unhappy with the final version of the film and consequently did little or no promotion of the movie, does some of the best work of his career here. He gives Donald depth that one wouldn’t expect, making him seem real and authentic. Much of this is due to Ronald Bass’ script but Hartnett pulls out some nuances that I didn’t think he had in him based on previous performances. This is the kind of movie that could get him more challenging roles if he wants to pursue that kind of work.
Mitchell, who has become a steady leading actress since first attracting notice in Pitch Black, also does a great job, making Isabelle entirely non-stereotypical and giving her the kind of spunk and fullness of life that make her in many ways the most memorable aspect of the movie. While Hartnett’s performance is more subtle, Mitchell gets to go over the top here and she does it nicely without descending into parody. Her and Hartnett make an attractive couple and while the chemistry is non-traditional, it works all the same.
The supporting cast of veteran character actors does well in their roles, particularly Lynch and Schwimmer. At no time do you get the feeling that anyone is looking down on their characters; these are all real people with real problems and while they may have different challenges than we do, that makes them no less fascinating.
This is director Naess’ first American film, and he does pretty well although the pacing gets a little choppy. Then again, that may be due to the nature of the characters that can lose interest in something and simply stop. That makes it occasionally difficult on the viewer who feels like the movie is veering off unexpectedly. It’s a kind of cinematic vertigo. While he never descends into movie of the week treacle, there are a few moments that are overly sentimental to me but thankfully they are few and far between.
While most look at Rain Man as their view into autism, in many ways this is a much more authentic look (although some groups have criticized the movie for playing into the perception that all autism patients have savant-like skills, which is actually much more rare than Hollywood would lead you to believe) at the disease. As a society, we tend to marginalize these people or worse, ignore them altogether. Hopefully, a viewing of Mozart and the Whale will give you a fresh perspective on a disease that affects real people and is in nearly every community in one form or another.
WHY RENT THIS: A very authentic-feeling look at the lives of those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hartnett and Mitchell have some quirky chemistry.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s pacing can be a bit abrupt. There are moments that are a bit mawkish.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some allusions to sexual subjects and a little bit of foul language but otherwise nothing too disturbing. However, the subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The screenplay was written by Ronald Bass who also wrote Rain Man, another movie about autism. He was inspired in this case by a 1995 article on Jerry and Mary Newport.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Tony Manero