×

Mozart & The Whale

Material that easily could have been turned into cringe-inducing TV movie sap has been handled with reasonable intelligence and authenticity in "Mozart & the Whale." Lacking a distrib, pic faces an uphill struggle commercially that could be aided by a promo push from star Josh Hartnett.

With:
Donald - Josh Hartnett Isabella - Radha Mitchell Wallace - Gary Cole Janice - Sheila Kelley Bronwin - Erica Leerhsen Gregory - John Carroll Lynch Roger - Nate Mooney Gracie - Rusty Schwimmer Blume - Robert Wisdom Skeets - Allen Evangelista

Material that easily could have been turned into cringe-inducing TV movie sap has been handled with reasonable intelligence and authenticity in “Mozart & the Whale.” This low-budget love story between two emotionally stunted young people with Asperger’s Syndrome doesn’t have the production sheen or star power of screenwriter Ron Bass’ “Rain Man,” but it’s less cloying and contrived. Lacking a distrib, pic faces an uphill struggle commercially that could be aided by a promo push from star Josh Hartnett, who should be proud to draw attention to his first screen performance that shows he has some acting chops.

Shot two years ago in Spokane, Wash., this marks the first American feature by Norwegian theater vet Petter Naess, whose 2001 fest hit “Elling” was Oscar-nominated. Helmer has an obvious knack with actors, as he trains dramatic focus on the problems of the two wildly different leading characters while sympathetically orchestrating a convincing ensemble of variously afflicted people who are never allowed to lapse into aimless affectation.

“Fictional story based on true events” was inspired by Jerry Newport, who reportedly wasn’t aware he had a form of autism until he saw “Rain Man” and subsequently organized support groups around the country. Hartnett’s character Donald is a taxi driver with a phenomenal talent for numbers who has assembled a support group where members can be themselves without outside pressure.

From the first, there is a refreshing absence of special pleading or under-the-microscope examination in Naess’ approach; the characters are what they are — cantankerous, repressed, deluded and so on. Their common trait, other than loneliness, is extreme mental preoccupation that contributes to difficulty dealing with the outside world or other individuals; they often don’t look people in the eye (especially true of Donald) or respond to questions, are consumed with statistics or esoteric knowledge, and are into their own heads to an extent that makes them natural loners unlikely to make meaningful connections with others.

Which sets up the central challenge, when gorgeous fireball Isabelle (Radha Mitchell) turns up to check out the group. Direct where Donald is evasive and kinetic while he is laid back, Isabelle would seem to have a brain firing on triple the normal number of synapses; she says what’s on her mind, is impulsively creative and seems, at first, like your everyday unpredictable, semi-flakey hyperneurotic.

Under the circumstances, it’s up to Isabelle to make the first move, which she does at a Halloween party at which she’s adorably dolled up like Wolfgang Amadeus and Donald’s rather less flatteringly accoutered as a whale. When he nervously brings her to the impossibly cluttered apartment he shares with an array of uncaged birds, Isabelle announces in her typically forthright manner, “This is about sex,” an approach a tad too direct for poor Donald.

Core of the movie, which flirts with cutesiness on occasion, deals with how the two do and don’t manage to sort out their relationship. Although Donald flips out when Isabelle takes it upon herself to clean up his apartment, Isabelle’s superior ability to handle real-life challenges enables her to find a house they can share as well as to land Donald a good job in statistics at the local university.

However, the tiniest slight unhinges Isabelle, creating legitimate doubt as to whether she, more than Donald, can ever handle a permanent relationship. Wrap-up arrives abruptly and feels somewhat unearned, given that so much of what precedes it has been examined in such detail.

Mitchell socks over her role as a dynamo whose emotional insecurity is buried under a fabulously attractive exterior; by virtue of her character’s assertiveness, she dominates the screen. But Hartnett’s performance as an awkward and retiring soul is at least equally closely observed, as the actor makes quite touching the desires that are so painful for Donald to act upon.

Supporting turns by often familiar thesps ring true, with John Carroll Lynch getting the most screen time as a seemingly belligerent man who helps the romance along.

Vidshot feature looks pretty good on the bigscreen, although production values are basic. Some of the pop tune music choices are too mainstream perky compared with the otherwise delicate handling of the material.

Popular on Variety

Mozart & The Whale

Production: A Millenium Films presentation of a Robert Lawrence production for Equity Pictures Medienfonds. (International sales: Nu Image, Los Angeles.) Produced by Lawrence, Ron Bass, Boaz Davidson, Frank DeMartini, James Acheson. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Josef Lautenschlager, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Gerd Koechlin, Manfred Heid. Co-producer, Lati Crobman. Directed by Petter Naess. Screenplay, Ron Bass.

Crew: Camea (color, Betacam), Svein Krovel; editors, Miklos Wright, Lisa Zeno Churgin; music, Deborah Lurie; music supervisor, Ashley Miller; production designer, Gary Steele; costume designer, Ha Nguyen; sound (Dolby), Nigel Elliot; supervising sound editor, Jonathan Miller; assistant director, Marc Dahlstrom; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (American Independent), Feb. 4, 2006. Running time: 92 MIN.

With: Donald - Josh Hartnett Isabella - Radha Mitchell Wallace - Gary Cole Janice - Sheila Kelley Bronwin - Erica Leerhsen Gregory - John Carroll Lynch Roger - Nate Mooney Gracie - Rusty Schwimmer Blume - Robert Wisdom Skeets - Allen Evangelista

More Film

  • So Long, My Son directed by

    Wang Xiaoshuai's 'So Long, My Son' Earns Six APSA Nominations

    Chinese drama, “So Long, My Son,” was nominated in six categories, making it the early favorite for this year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The Wang Xiaoshuai-directed drama about separation, secrets, a lifetime of regret, and the consequences of China’s one child policy, had its premiere in February at the Berlin festival. There it won Silver [...]

  • Alan Rickman

    Film News Roundup: 'Galaxy Quest' Documentary Set for Release

    In today’s film news roundup, rescue drama “Not Without Hope” is back in development, a “Galaxy Quest” documentary is set for release, “The Two Popes” wins another award, and Ella Joyce gets cast. PROJECT REVIVED U.K.-based financing-production outfit Goldfinch has bought feature film rights to Nick Schuyler’s “Not Without Hope” and signed “The Fog” director [...]

  • Ryan Reynolds John Krasinkski

    Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski in Talks for 'Imaginary Friends' Movie

    Ryan Reynolds and John Krasinski are in talks to board the fantasy comedy “Imaginary Friends” at Paramount Studios. Paramount recently won the bidding for the property over Lionsgate and Sony. Krasinski will write, direct,  produce and star while Reynolds will co-star if the deals go through. The story centers on a man who can see [...]

  • Willem Dafoe attends the "Motherless Brooklyn"

    Willem Dafoe Joins Guillermo Del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley'

    Willem Dafoe has closed a deal to join Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of “Nightmare Alley.” Collider had first reported that Dafoe was being considered for a role in the film, but sources now say the “Lighthouse” star has closed a deal to join the cast. The “At [...]

  • 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    Busan Film Review: 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    “To the Ends of the Earth,” the story of a young Japanese journalist’s experiences in Uzbekistan filming a report for a Japanese TV travel show, was originally commissioned to celebrate 25 years of cordial diplomatic relations between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hyper-developed island homeland and the less affluent, landlocked Central Asian nation. As such we might [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content