Just when you thought the disease-of-the-week genre had run out of diseases, along comes “Brain on Fire,” a made-for-TV-style look at anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, an extremely rare autoimmune disorder that transforms an ambitious (but otherwise supremely uninteresting) young New York Post reporter into a raving psychotic. Based on the bestselling memoir by Susannah Cahalan, played here by Chloë Grace Moretz as a teeth-gnashing, plate-smashing nut case in apparent need of an exorcism, this embarrassingly earnest film — produced by Charlize Theron — argues for the importance of doctors going the extra mile, when textbook diagnoses won’t do. It’s the sort of role for which the Razzies were invented, and what little audience it finds will almost certainly be heckling as they watch Moretz implode.
If ever there was a movie for Lindsay Lohan — who followed a similar path of promise, meltdown, and tentative recovery — this is it, though the role was originally earmarked for Dakota Fanning. Moretz is a fine actress who comes across as little more than a puffy-looking Cabbage Patch Kid here: a bland, doll-faced blonde who’s tired of writing softball stories about social media, but wants to make a name for herself at work. On the continuum of young female characters determined to break into the unforgiving New York shark tank, Susannah falls somewhere between Anne Hathaway’s entitled “The Devil Wears Prada” assistant and the no-boundaries young journalist Morgan Saylor plays in the infinitely edgier “White Girl” — though she’s lucky to have a wise-cracking desk-mate (Jenny Slate) and compassionate editor (Tyler Perry!) in her corner.
She has also snagged New York’s most vanilla boyfriend, a relatively ambitionless musician played by Thomas Mann, who serenades her in the buff and seems to get along just fine with her divorced parents (Richard Armitage and Carrie-Anne Moss). We meet the latter, along with their new flames, at a confusing birthday picnic, when 24-year-old Susannah notices the first symptom that something isn’t right: She can’t blow out the candles on her own cake. Soon, she’s hearing voices, vacantly clutching her forehead, and stepping in front of taxi cabs — basically, acting like that first character to be infected in a zombie movie, the one who takes half an hour to realize what’s happening to her brain, but powerless to reverse the process. If the movie were better written, the effect would be no less horror-movie-worthy, since, for all intents and purposes, no one can identify what’s wrong with her.
A doctor with 20 years experience (Vincent Gale) takes one look and dismisses it as a standard case of “partying too hard.” Susannah’s parents aren’t too sure, demanding that the medical establishment do its job. Meanwhile, Moretz plays the character’s mounting paranoia like something out of daytime television, persecuted by water dripping in the sink at home (“What!? Do it again!” she challenges the offending faucet) or climbing on cabinets and shrieking at her colleagues at work. All of this feels far removed from director Gerard Barrett’s sphere of comfort. What distinguished the Irish helmer’s first two features — “Pilgrim Hill” and “Glassland,” in which Toni Collette plunged alcoholism’s raw rock bottom — was precisely his ability to resist the kind of cutesy melodrama he’s cooked up here.
After decades of celebrating the commitment of actors for sensitively portraying physical and mental disorders on-screen, audiences have become wary of indulgent (and worse, patronizing) stunt performances, à la Gary Oldman’s turn as a dwarf in “Tiptoes” or Rosie O’Donnell playing it “slow” in “Riding the Bus with My Sister.” We live in an era of ironic detachment — the age of snark — in which jaded audiences have an increasingly hard time keeping a straight face when confronted with such superficial bids for empathy. (Contrast that with another Toronto film festival premiere, “Maudie,” which practically ignores its protagonist’s crippling arthritis in an attempt to capture her soul instead.) But who is the real Susannah Cahalan? Apart from her ailment, why should we care? This film suggests that all she needed was a good doctor (played here by Navid Negahban) to restore her otherwise perfect life, though any script doctor can tell you the film’s problems run deeper than that, and chances are, if you could cut past the glib first-person narration, Cahalan has a far more compelling story to tell.