DELIRIOUS is like a tidy little zen koan from Tom DiCillo. The story is about paparazzi and the celebs that they stalk, but both the comedy and the tragedy in this gentle satire comes from the schizophrenic struggle between public image and reality in those lives. The lesson involves three stories that intertwine by chance that consider the nature of true happiness, the lack of, the hope for, and the stumbling into.
The lack of is Kharma (Alison Lohman) a pop music princess with the world on a string and parents who are suing her for the cost of having raised her, and a public relations problem trying to spin the break-up with her current boyfriend to her advantage as she launches a new album. The hope for is Les Galantine (Steve Buscemi), a fringe paparazzo who insists on being called a “licensed professional” and who has been trying to get his ticket to the big time since before cameras went digital. The stumbling into is Toby, a holy fool, an innocent man-child with no roof over his head and no specific plan beyond the vaguely defined goal of, as he puts it, trying to be an actor. His offering to do a coffee run for Les as he waits to snap a photo of Kharma coming out of hotel with her boyfriend sets a curious synchronicity in motion. As Toby is meandering of in search of that coffee, he runs into the self-same Kharma sneaking out a side entrance, and makes an impression on her by doing her a small favor, and by being prettier than she is. Even with the hair that isn’t so much tousled as run amok.
Les’ picture doesn’t happen, but in a moment of unexpected generosity, he decides to offer Toby a place to sleep for the night. It’s a move that will have rewards beyond that of doing a good deed. Toby has a knack for plumbing repairs that stands him in good stead with Les, who takes him on as unpaid assistant, and later with Kharma, who has her own plumbing problem during a high-profile party that everyone else is enjoying. He also buoys Les’ ego by buying into the big game that Les desperately talks in an effort to convince himself as much as the listener, and by being both properly sympathetic and stunningly insightful after Les’ disastrous dinner with his folks.
DiCillo is wry when it comes to the mechanics of the fame machine. It’s not exactly a difficult proposition inventively, but his take on the phenomena of self-congratulations, self-aggrandizement, and self-gratification with such piquant touches as a benefit for survivors of venereal disease, manages to encompass all three at once while never overplaying the inherent absurdity of it all. Sure, there are the phalanx of publicists who nurture and enable for the big bucks it brings them, the hard-nosed cougar of a casting director (Gina Gershon), who is an arch blend of femme fatale, romantic, and clear-eyed realist, but he is going for more than the typical behind-the-scenes story. He dissects his three protagonists with a deft erudition, but as he does so, he also imbues them with the seemingly impossible. They are all, at heart, genuinely sweet. Twitchy or clueless or bitterly disappointed they may be, but there is an eagerness to please that bespeaks the inner void oddly untainted by parental failings and a world delivers gut blows without warning. Buscemi is more than just a neurotic collection of tics and stutters. There’s the whiff of mythic tragedy about him as he plumbs the gnawing despair that has Les by the throat even when he is waxing eloquent about getting a picture of Elvis Costello without his trademark hat. On the other end of the spectrum, Pitt takes Toby’s simplicity into profoundly noble territory by finding the calmness of not trying to be anything other than what he is and being comfortable with that. Lohman has a few very good moments, like the subtle way her face falls when she learns of the lawsuit Kharma’s parents are brewing, but rarely goes for more than the obvious with her flavor-of-the-minute character.
DELIRIOUS plays like an edgy fable. Working from a well-worn premise, DiCillo finds comedy in the tragic, depth in the shallowness, and surprises in the cliché. Smart and savvy, he eschews the chill usually found in satire and bestows upon it a deeply affecting emotional resonance and an astonishing warmth.