Justin Theroux, the director of Dedication, wants to have it both ways, and in this case there's no shame in that. The film aims to mix romantic comedy with indie darkness; the ideal result would be a film with the charm and sweetness of a vintage rom-com with the honesty, wit, and/or realism of a screenplay free of Hollywood fingerprints. Dedication, though, feels like it has its signals crossed -- it zigs when it should zag, and settles for laziness at the most inopportune moments.
Henry (Billy Crudup) is withdrawn, anxious, and openly hostile, and almost certainly suffers from some sort of low-grade mental illness. Despite his unfriendly exterior, he is also an author of children's books who has found success with his only friend and illustrator, Rudy (Tom Wilkinson). When Rudy is unable to complete a sequel to their wildly popular book about a mischievous beaver, their publisher (Bob Balaban) dispatches Lucy (Mandy Moore) to help Henry finish the book. At first, they're at odds, but, well, you know the rest.
Before we even get to the rest, the film almost immediately adapts one of the genre's worst habits. Henry's profession is central to the story yet seems almost completely arbitrary; every detail, in fact, from the supposed three-week manuscript-to-publication turnaround, to the children's book publisher who works in a series of large, empty, expensive-looking offices surrounded by no other employees at any time, to even the idea that a ringer illustrator can be brought in on short notice but that the temperamental, unpleasant author is irreplaceable (at least as long as the plot requires), rings false.
This incessant clanging would not be so distracting if it weren't accompanied by so many other tired conventions. There's the completely unredeemable cad who somehow manages to serve as a romantic rival (this ex-boyfriend version is played by Martin Freeman), and a mad dash (granted, more impressive than many) to win back the girl.
And these frustrations, in turn, would be routine and maybe even minor if not for the fact that Dedication shows sparks of life almost as often. To the film's credit, Henry is allowed to be a real jerk, not just a movie version of one. During his first meeting with Lucy, he has a long, involved story that starts like one of the writer riffs in Wonder Boys before making an abrupt but calculated turn into cruelty towards his would-be partner. You really believe this girl -- and, in his dysfunctional way, this guy -- might be seriously hurt by this relationship.
That doesn't, however, mean said relationship is fully formed. Theroux's day job is an actor, and based on his endearingly oddball work in films as varied as Mulholland Drive, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and The Baxter, maybe he would've been better off casting himself as Henry. Crudup has proven himself a gifted performer, but he tends to get lost when placed in the romantic-cynic axis, sounding coarse rather than damaged or funny. He's at his best playing characters with a strong element of inscrutability (or "mystique," as another character in Almost Famous put it), and while Henry's past must hold its share of undisclosed pain, Dedication holds focus on his present, which calls on less of Crudup's mercurial reserve.
Crudup's pairing with Moore almost works, nearly throwing the whole movie back into balance; he's there to keep it indie, while she presumably represents for Hollywood. Poor Moore has given a lot of these performances: game and sweet, an unassuming movie star, in service of a movie that just doesn't work.
Though the script may be the culprit for the mismatched clichés and broad supporting characters (chief among them Dianne Weist as Moore's shrieking mother), it's disappointing that Theroux wasn't able to finesse it into something more nuanced and clear. He's sometimes effective at conveying information through quick visual cues -- we see both Henry's success and persistent loneliness in one quick dissolve from a pre-riches shot of a 13-inch TV in an undecorated apartment to a large flat-screen propped up on the same unkempt floor. But he also accentuates his compositions with distracting flashes of white that may represent Henry's frayed synapses but look more like the transitions from about half of every '90s music video -- another misstep on the line between arty and hacky. Dedication has so many of those; no matter how likable it gets in individual moments, it's almost impossible to admire as a whole.
I dedicate this review to, um, nothing.