Satire is not a blunt instrument. In the hands of an overzealous filmmaker, jokes and pointed barbs can readily fly over your head, leaving you to think "Hey, wait, was that supposed to be funny? Cuz it kinda was." (Or, even worse, the satire is presented in such a ham-fisted fashion that the insight ends up buried beneath moronic punchlines) Such is quite definitely not the case in Delirious, a poker-faced but insightful and amusing comedic drama that takes square aim at pop stars, paparazzi and stargazers without ever settling for the obvious joke or the predictable punchline. This comes as no big surprise to me, considering that the writer/director of Delirious is Tom DiCillo, frequent Jim Jarmusch cinematographer and rather astute filmmaker in his own right. (DiCillo gave us Johnny Suede, The Real Blonde and -- one of my favorite movies about filmmakers -- the excellent Living in Oblivion)
Delirious is the tale of a kind-hearted but depressingly unfocused homeless kid called Toby (played brilliantly by Michael Pitt) who starts an unlikely friendship with a fast-talking paparazzi photographer named Les (Steve Buscemi, as good as he's ever been) and somehow manages to find himself in close proximity to K'harma Leeds, a teen idol pop sensation who is as beautiful as she is obtuse. (As the pop star, Alison Lohman is nothing short of stellar; she avoids the really obvious digs on Lindsay, Brittney and Paris ... but she sure does nail 'em to the wall anyway) Insecurities, jealousies and betrayals crop up as Toby becomes torn between loyalty to Les and his affection for K'harma ... two types of people (pop star and paparazzo) who aren't exactly known for worrying about other people. But despite his difficulties, Toby maintains a wide-eyed sincerity and a warmth that has a strange effect on his new friends: Les is made uncomfortable by Toby's kindness, while K'harma seems absolutely enthralled by the boy's sincerity.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Delirious could have been a basic and very obvious farce: the photographer would be an irredeemable sleazeball, the pop star would be an absolute bitch and the industry of, ahem, "freelance photography" would be undoubtedly dismissed as obnoxious and evil ... but DiCillo is a much better screenwriter than most. His characters are flawed but sympathetic, even when they're behaving like selfish jerks. The director draws some really excellent performances from his three leads (Gina Gershon pops up with a great little supporting turn, as does Kevin Corrigan) and seems to enjoy squashing the viewers' early predictions. Just when you're sure you know how Delirious is going to close, DiCillo comes up with a capper that's as satisfying as it is understated.
Despite DiCillo's strong script and confident direction and the head-turning work from Buscemi and Lohman, Delirious belongs almost exclusively to young Michael Pitt, who adds yet another subtly strong performance to his filmography. (This kid's gonna win some awards someday -- book it) His Toby character could so easily come off as stupid, arrogant or annoyingly innocent, but Pitt brings a real heart and sincerity to the character. It's an approach that brings a lot more soul to a flick that could otherwise have been just a few obvious swipes at the very famous and those who choose to idolize them.