Named after the beautiful woman who effortlessly steals the heart of its womanizing protagonist, “Mercy” is a romantic drama of deceptively modest ambition. Indeed, its modesty is what makes its very real virtues — a tart, literate script, an adroit balance of humor and pathos, a memorable onscreen collaboration between star-scribe Scott Caan and his father James — so cumulatively impressive. Prevailing over a facile, time-shifting structure with a fully felt love story, this flawed but accomplished picture will require critical support and smart, attractive packaging to lure intelligent adult auds in specialized release.
Opening scenes establish this boy-loses-girl tale as a memory piece that will be recounted somewhat out of sequence, in a manner that superficially recalls “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the recent “500 Days of Summer.” But screenwriter Caan deploys the device more sparingly than those films did, and his aching paean to lost love has none of their lacerating bitterness.
Indeed, from the moment he meets tall, raven-haired Mercy Bennett (Wendy Glenn) at a swanky Los Angeles party, playboy novelist John Ryan (Caan) is thoroughly smitten and not at all discouraged when she politely rebuffs his flirtations. When John later finds out the ironically named Mercy is the literary critic who savaged his latest surefire bestseller, he becomes even more determined, and manages to track her down and smooth-talk his way into a date.
Though the setup has its coincidences and implausibilities (none more far-fetched than the notion that Variety would review John’s novel), it’s all put across with disarming deftness and slick charm — which makes sense, given that the events are being presented in John’s slyly novelizing voice. Predictably, the first date begets another, and it’s not long before the sharp-clawed critic is defanged by love, even as she offers John welcome advice on how to deepen his writing.
After its first act (titled “Before”), the film jumps ahead some unspecified length of time to the next chapter (titled “After”). For reasons not yet apparent, Mercy is gone, and John is inconsolable, as evidenced by his uncharacteristically poor grooming habits and surly behavior. As Caan casts off his earlier swagger in pursuit of a grittier, angrier characterization, the film’s central dramatic irony — a onetime lady-killer brought low by true love, only to have it cruelly snatched away — and flashback-heavy resolution may rightly strike some auds as a tad facile.
Yet if it tends toward a certain narrative patness, “Mercy” derives considerable atmosphere and emotional authenticity from the persuasive social environment it builds around John. The film marks the directing debut of Patrick Hoelck, whose background in musicvideos and still photography capably serves the film’s glossy, hipsterish milieu without losing sight of the story’s human element.
Seductively, stylishly mapped out by production designer Peter Simmons, it’s a world that encompasses both the chic, black-and-white interiors of a Hollywood hotel and a messy studio apartment belonging to one of John’s potential conquests (Whitney Able). More important, it’s a world populated by terrific supporting thesps — including Dylan McDermott as John’s delightfully shallow agent, Troy Garity as his dependable best friend and Erika Christensen as a potential new love interest — delivering dialogue that’s quick-witted but never too smart-alecky.
“Mercy” reserves its secret weapon for the later reels, in which John visits his father, a grizzled, hard-bitten but soulful gent who eloquently holds forth on the fleeting nature of love. Beautifully played by James Caan — looking thinner on top, thicker around the middle and as menschy as ever — this droll, distant dad brings his son’s literary aspirations and earlier cynicism about relationships into sharp focus, and the real-life father-son interplay renders their onscreen dynamic all the more moving.
With her exquisite poise, model features and subdued warmth, Brit stunner Glenn truly does seem to warrant John’s affections and the camera’s flattery, even if she exists more as idealized soulmate than fully fleshed-out female. And if her well-muscled screen partner seems more of a surfer dude than a writerly type, Caan’s growing body of screenplays — including 2003’s “Dallas 362” and 2006’s “The Dog Problem,” both of which he directed — stands as perhaps the most effective rebuke.