Monday, February 10, 2014

Jimmy P: Head-Shrinking on the Plains

Georges Devereux credited his time in the field with Native Americans for turning back towards Freudian analysis, because they convinced him of the power of dreams. Fittingly, his “Dora” would also be a Native American patient, whom Devereux treats at the behest of the VA in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

James Picard saw just enough action in the waning days of WWII to have his skill fracturing.  Suffering from debilitating headaches and dizziness, Picard checks into the Topeka VA hospital, from where he is soon transferred to the nearby Menninger Institute. There is nothing physically wrong with Picard, but the good Dr. Menninger never doubts his pain. Trying a different tact, Menninger calls in the controversial Dr. Devereux for a one time referral, hoping his anthropological expertise will facilitate a psychiatric diagnosis.

Like anyone, Picard made plenty of mistakes in life, which may weigh on his psyche. Devereux will do his best to untangle them for the sake of Picard’s well being and his own checkered career. Representing the best of Jimmy P, Desplechin’s scenes of their analysis sessions are written and performed with intelligence and unusual sensitivity. However, there is a great deal sluggish connective tissue, wherein Desplechin establishes and compulsively re-establishes the dry and sleepy late 1940’s Kansas setting.

Still, there is something to be said for the restraint exhibited by Desplechin and lead actor Benicio Del Toro, who draws us into Picard’s interior torment, rather than howling at the moon and bugging out his eyes, like a Blackfoot Meryl Streep. Wisely, Desplechin allows Picard to maintain his dignity instead of using him as an easy figure of victimhood.

In fact, Desplechin and co-writers Kent Jones and Julie Peyr maintain an ambiguous stance regarding Devereux’s ethical sensibilities, allowing space for viewers to interpret him as either exploiter or altruist, which is usually how life works. Clearly, the film is deeply informed by revisionist criticism of manifest destiny, but it never hyperventilates with outrage. Frankly, aside from an orderly calling Picard “Chief,” the VA is largely depicted in positive terms.

As Picard and Devereux, Del Toro and Mathieu Almaric play off and complement each other quite other quite well. Almaric brings an especially welcome roguish energy as the Austro-Hungarian born French-American psychoanalyst (who happened to be Edward Teller’s cousin). While Del Toro’s lack of histrionics is a blessed relief, his extreme reserve sometimes has a lulling effect.  In support, Larry Pine does right by American psychiatry, conveying Menninger’s authority and compassion (anyone who has not yet seen him in Vanya on 42nd Street should catch up with Louis Malle’s ultra-New York take on Chekhov at their earliest convenience), while Misty Upham adds a note of graceful tragedy as Jane, Picard’s great flashback love.

Desplechin’s pace is a tad on the leisurely side and Howard Shore’s score would better serve an unabashedly weepy melodrama. Nevertheless, the small ensemble shoulders through, making it all work at the end. It is a quality period production, but it never overwhelms viewers’ emotions or senses. Not quite at the level of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, but considerably superior to the recent French import Augustine, Jimmy P is recommended for fans of head-shrinking cinema when it opens this Friday (2/14) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.