In movies, the ’60s and ’70s were the heyday of adorable kooks (Goldie, Liza), mentally impaired cuddle bears like the hero of “Charly,” and saintly schizophrenic victims like Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” Mental illness, in general, was viewed through a softer lens than the one we employ today, partly because of the whole who’s really sane in a crazy world? ideology of the time.
All of which makes “Lost Transmissions,” written and directed by Katharine O’Brien, a minor indie oddball. The movie stars Juno Temple, her face a cozy mask of pain, as some sort of depressive Los Angeles art-pop songwriter and Simon Pegg as a mouthy expat-Brit record producer who knows how to take command — until it’s revealed, early on, that he has a tendency to collapse into fits of schizophrenic delusion. This has been happening ever since he dropped acid and had a psychotic break while on tour with the band he used to be in. It happens now whenever he goes off his medication, though he hates his meds to a degree that it’s unclear how much he’s ever on them.
In the counterculture era, or even more recently (“As Good as It Gets,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), the question that drove a movie like this one would have been: Can these two fall in love? And will love prove to be salvation for a person suffering from a severe mental disability? But though Theo (Pegg) and Hannah (Temple) start off cute and warm and flirty, in a sequence set in his makeshift home recording studio, “Lost Transmissions” isn’t a romance. It doesn’t sentimentalize Theo’s illness (much) or pull back from how disconnected he can be. “Lost Transmissions” may even sound like it deserves props for its straight-up, objective view of mental illness. Except for one small detail: That stance ends up removing the basic dramatic motor of the film.
Theo, off his meds, turns up the car-radio static and listens to the cosmic transmissions he thinks are percolating beneath. He lapses into paranoid rages and endangers the people he’s driving with (including a pregnant woman whose baby bump he thinks is some sort of bomb), and he self-destructs as a record producer by heckling the artist he’s in the middle of recording. As presented, Theo isn’t just loopy or “difficult,” or the sort of enlightened eccentric who glimpses the outline of truths the rest of don’t. He’s impossible; he’s in extreme need of clinical professional help.
As a lead character, though, all of this renders him impossible to connect to. It’s not Simon Pegg’s fault. At this point, we’ve seen him play so much brazen comedy, or the kind of quizzical-card teammates (Scotty in the “Star Trek” movies, Benji in the “Mission: Impossible” films) who add a hit of helium to a heady blockbuster, that it’s nice to see him take on an undiluted serious role — and guess what, he’s a natural dramatic actor. In “Lost Transmissions,” Pegg weeps as if drawing the tears from a well of emotion imprinted on his spinal cord, he throws fits of boxed-in anger, he speaks to radio waves in the air, and I, for one, bought every minute of it. He shows you the pain that schizophrenics deal with — the agony of being welded to belief systems that seem to have emerged from a mental matrix. Yet it’s mostly for naught. You look at a character who’s this detached from reality, and about all you can think is: Get thee to a hospital.
Trying to hook up Theo with the help he needs occupies most of this moody ramble of a film, though Hannah, at one point, does become the songwriter for a brash postmodern pop star (Alexandra Daddario) who’s like a 21st-century Julie Brown. Mostly, though, Hannah tries to convince Theo to take his pills, and failing that she tries to get him into a psych ward. The place, however, has no right to keep him there without his voluntary confinement. The movie should have been about convincing Theo to stay on those meds, committing himself to feel less in order to experience more sanity. Hannah would certainly like to push him in that direction, but “Lost Transmissions” is a murky and unfocused journey, set in a Los Angeles that looks as sodden as London on an overcast day. What the movie never figures out is how to make a man with mental illness brush up against our hearts.