All the improbable, oddball and endless love in the world can’t rescue “Waiting for Forever” from a premise that’s irresponsible at worst and an example of profoundly bad timing at best: A young man with obvious mental problems is indulged by his friends, ignored by his family, never gets the help he needs and stalks his childhood sweetheart all over the country. As quasi-comedy, “Waiting” does a pretty good impersonation of incipient tragedy — especially in light of the recent events in Arizona, which will likely color film’s reception and poison word of mouth.
Pathos is an underrated quality, but this melancholy romance, helmed by James Keach (“Blind Dating”) and scripted by Steve Adams, pushes it into uncharted territory. The problem isn’t so much that Will Donner (Tom Sturridge) dresses in pajamas and a bowler hat, or makes a living juggling on the street, or gets around by hitchhiking (one of the film’s more implausible devices) or even that he wears a faraway, unstable look that occasionally suggests Robert De Niro in “Mean Streets.” He also talks to his parents in the middle of conversations with other people — and as we learn through a series of gauzy, and somewhat mawkish flashbacks, Will’s parents were killed in a train wreck when he was about 6, which is when his emotional development seized up like an unoiled engine. Will and his brother Jim (Scott Mechlowicz) moved away, and he never saw his best friend Emma again — except from the shadows, as he followed her around.
One of the more appalling aspects of the story — if one were to actually buy into it — is that Will’s fixation on Emma is common knowledge among his friends and family and everyone else in their small Pennsylvania town, and nobody has ever bothered to tell Emma.
Meanwhile, Emma (Rachel Bilson) has grown up to be an actress, whose L.A.-based sitcom has just been canceled, and whose relationship with her clearly volatile co-star Aaron (Matthew Davis) has hit the skids. So she heads home to her slightly dithery mother, Miranda (Blythe Danner), and dying father, Richard (a terrific Richard Jenkins). Unbeknownst to her, she’s followed by Will, who somehow always knows her travel plans and for some reason or other is finally going to summon up the courage to knock on Emma’s door, just as the young woman’s life is falling apart.
“Waiting for Forever” wants to be a fairy tale — those flashbacks say it, as does Will’s occasionally winsome, sprite-like persona. But even though he sort of gets better — conveniently, by the end of the film — it’s clear from his earlier actions that he’s truly demented: He makes no cognitive connection with Jim when the latter asks for help, he has no awareness that his behavior is strange, and he doesn’t process language properly (when a hysterical Emma accuses him of stalking her, he repeatedly responds “I go where you go”).
The idea that his state of mind would be presented as anything but tragic and sad — rather than, say, misunderstood by a world too callous to appreciate his sensitivity — makes for a movie that eludes the viewer’s grasp, because it’s arguing a position auds will find instinctively wrong.
Performances are good, given the context: Bilson is solid, and Jenkins flawless as a man who greets his impending demise like a character out of Beckett. Danner gives a delicate rendering, via Miranda’s incessant cheeriness, of an older woman whose familiar world is collapsing.
Sturridge, for all the script’s problems, has obviously worked at creating something novel out of Will, even if that something is a behatted cherubic psychotic. You don’t know if he might snap — and the fact that a murder subplot is gracelessly shoehorned into the narrative merely points up the film’s chief flaw, which is its attempt to pass off real mental illness as eccentricity.
Production values are topnotch, especially the recurrent theme by Nick Urata, which is quite lovely and atmospheric.