I had a moment’s hesitation this morning in trying to remember that smart Noah Baumbach film that the likable Jessie Eisenberg costarred in. The whale, the shark, the squid, the porpoise, the flounder. It’s not Mozart and the Whale, I told myself — that’s the Josh Hartnett/Radha Mitchell movie about lovers with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s The Shark and…it wouldn’t come but I knew it was about two aquatic life forms, and one of them was definitely a whale.
It came to me 10 or 12 seconds later, but in the meantime I was reminded that Mozart and the Whale will be out on DVD on December 12th via Sony Home Video. I wrote a half-rave about it eight or nine months ago after catching it at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
I found out later there was an even better version, or at least one that Hartnett and Mitchell preferred, but it was scuttled when the film’s executive produer Avi Lerner had it re-edited, which is why Hartnett refused to support the film when it played in Santa Barbara.
The version I saw “is a Rain Man-type love story with a jumpy heart, ” I commented. “Jumpy as in child-like, energetic, anxious. A romanticized, tidied-up version of a complicated real-life love story, it’s about a youngish couple with autism, or more particularly Asperger’s Syndrome. And this, viewing-wise, is nervy and provocative in more ways than one.
“It’s not calming or swoony like other love stories because the lovers are always in a fairly hyper and unsettled state, which feels a bit challenging, but it seems real and fairly honest and is obviously on a wavelength all its own. At first you’re thinking it needs a regular-guy character (like Tom Cruise’s selfish prick in Rain Man) to provide stability and perspective, but then you get used to the manic energy of it.
“And then you start enjoying more and more the vigorous cutting and the funky European-style tone (Norway’s Petter Naess directed), and particularly Hartnett and Mitchell’s performances, which feel wired and fresh and unlike anything I’ve ever gotten, tonally, from a love story before.
“For what it’s worth, a woman [following the SBIFF screening] said she has an autistic child stood up and that Hartnett’s performance is authentic and spot-on. And people from Europe who are claiming to be autistic (or are close to autistic people) who’ve seen the DVD are saying the same thing in online chat rooms.
“Written by Rain Man screenwriter Ron Bass, Mozart and the Whale is nothing if not alive to the moment. It’s a little twee at times and vigorously paced, but it’s not a comedy, despite what you might have read elsewhere. Call it amped or cranked up but it feels more original than not.
“It’s a spirited tale about two childlike souls, Donald and Isabelle, dealing with the peaks and valleys of a turbulent love affair, but also trying to seriously build a life together.
“Donald (Hartnett) is a kindly eager-beaver who keeps birds in his stinky cluttered apartment and, like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond, has a genius-like ability with numbers. He works as a taxi driver but is also an organizer of an autistic support group. He copes well but doesn’t adapt well to change. Isabelle (Mitchell) is also austistic but bohemian. Her life-coping skills are more refined than Donald’s and she’s more goal-oriented, but in a way she’s more manic and volatile, and she has a way of setting Donald off…and vice versa.
“Austistic boy meets autistic girl, they fall in love, they break up, they get together again, they break up again and get back together again and finally get married. A familiar-sounding plot, perhaps, but with odd angles and tender weirdnesses.”