Many people won't be surprised that Josh Hartnett is pretty good at playing a person who has an inability to emote. And it won't surprise those familiar with filmmakers Ronald Bas (who wrote Rain Man) and Petter Naess (who directed the brilliant, offbeat Swedish buddy film Elling), that Mozart and the Whale is a competent and occasionally touching portrayal of Asperger's Syndrome.
Shot in and around Spokane in 2004 -- including a clever montage that turns Cat Tales, the STA Plaza and the greenhouse at Manito into an urban zoo -- the film centers on the hesitant love between Donald Morton (Hartnett) and Isabelle Sorenson (Radha Mitchell). Both have Asperger's, a condition that often makes people unbelievably bright and driven, but which also hamstrings their ability to communicate and form interpersonal bonds. This makes Donald and Isabelle's courtship rocky, to say the least.
Problem is, there's no entry point for the audience, and for those with no experience with Asperger's or autism, this is a deeply confusing film. Things happen, we see the characters interact, misunderstandings occur, but we never really understand why. We don't understand the processes of Asperger's. We're never allowed inside the character's heads. (You should do a little homework before watching the film because the tragic beauty of the syndrome certainly isn't explained during it.)
Donald saying "I take things literally" is all the background we get, leaving a void where there might be considerable nuance. Imagine being unable to understand or process abstract content. Imagine not being able to process sarcasm. Imagine not being able to make a cognitive leap between what is said and what is actually meant, beyond the most obvious and most literal. We aren't made to understand these things, and thus we remain detached from their experience.
The film would have benefited from a non-autistic straight man for the characters to play off, the way Tom Cruise's Charlie Babbit gave the audience a lens through which to identify with his autistic brother, Raymond, in Rain Man. Charlie's struggle to understand aided our struggle to understand.
There are also some massive continuity errors and gaps of fact. About 50 minutes into the film, as Isabelle is trying to convince Donald to buy a house with her, he begins to yell. "Don't you remember I lost my job?" he wails. No, we don't remember that. In fact, we never knew he had a job. I'd assumed, to this point, that he was on state assistance or something. Then, later, as Isabelle gets him an interview for a data entry job (a nice fit, as Donald is a mathematical savant), he once again freaks out, saying, "I drive a cab! That's what I do." Cab driver? You don't say. That's a fruitful bit of information, offering potential for a great storyline, but it's wasted.
You get that sense of waste a lot watching Mozart and the Whale, as you speed through its complex set of lives and relationships in a little less than 90 minutes. There are wonderful stories here, and the film might have coalesced if those stories were given the time they needed to develop. Then we might have gotten a little of Donald actually driving that cab. Being forced to negotiate with him the minefield of sarcasm and symbolism that so-called neurotypicals (people without autism) take for granted would have helped us understand his struggle and, by extension, it would have helped us understand him. Isabelle's job at the hair salon might have been used to similar effect.
It's a shame, because Mozart has many of the elements that make great movies. The pieces, though, never fit together, much less cohere into any kind of whole. Like watching Hartnett walk into a downtown apartment building only to look out his window in the next scene and see Charley's on North Monroe, the whole film feels similarly scattershot, like a surface level ramble through a dysfunctional relationship, rather than a probing meditation on the universality of love and on the mutual hardships that tie people together.
Not only do they fail to draw those parallels between the autistic and the neurotypical, the filmmakers often derive empathy in ways they didn't intend to. Many autistic people have an acute sensitivity to auditory stimuli, making the world an overwhelming, maddeningly cacophonous place. Mimicking this, the film's musical score (composed with ham fists by Sleepover's Deborah Lurie) intrudes loudly on every scene, crashing mightily against whatever action is onscreen. Ditto the handful of pop tunes that intone on occasion. Good luck trying to follow Donald and Isabelle's romance while some guitar lick straight out of the Alice in Chains songbook drowns out the dialogue.
Early in the film, Isabelle is assaulted by the sound of a carnival ring toss game. She drops to her knees, covers her ears and screams, "Make it stop! Make it stop!" In that moment I felt overwhelming empathy for her. Not the kind of identification the filmmakers were looking for, but it was nice to feel connected on some level.
Mozart and the Whale; Rated PG-13; Directed by Petter Naess; Starring Josh Hartnett,Radha Mitchell