maybe if I'd seen "Touch," Paul Shrader's new comedy based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, first, before the recent crop of spiritual flicks, most notably last year's "Phenomenon," I might have been able to appreciate it for what it is: a nice, small, somewhat dreamy film that doesn't really go anywhere despite a kick-ass cast. But I didn't. So here's what I really thought.
"Touch" is the story of Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich), a lapsed Franciscan monk who leaves his monastery in Brazil and ends up in Los Angeles, counseling alcoholics at the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center. Juvenal (his Franciscan name; his real name is Charles Lawson) is not your ordinary lapsed monk; he has stigmatic powers (he bleeds from wounds on his hands and side) and can heal people with his touch.
When word of Juvenal's miraculous gift gets out, everyone wants a piece of him: August Murray (Tom Arnold), a fanatical right-wing Catholic leader, who sees Juvenal as the key to taking his movement national; Bill Hill (Christopher Walken), a smooth-talking former evangelist who now sells RVs for a living but is always on the lookout for a good church scam; and even Debra Lusanne (Gina Gershon), the brassy talk show host ` la Jenny Jones, who's more interested in exposing Juvenal as a fraud on live television for ratings than in finding out the truth. Only Lynn Faulkner (Bridget Fonda), a down-and-out record promoter, is interested in Juvenal for reasons other than his healing powers.
It's hard not to make comparisons between "Touch" and the commercially successful "Phenomenon." For those of you who've never seen that warm and fuzzy picture, John Travolta plays a dimwitted auto mechanic who sees a mysterious light in the sky and is transformed overnight into a genius who can learn new languages in 20 minutes and move objects with his mind. The difference between Travolta's character and Juvenal is that Travolta's powers bring his community closer together; his goodness and his heightened self-awareness help the other characters overcome their cynicism. They become better people simply for having known him (it's a real feel-good fest). Juvenal, on the other hand, continues to naively perform his miracles while the people around him exploit him. Perhaps he realizes this but doesn't care, or maybe he really is blind to the deception that envelops him. His adversaries certainly don't learn anything from his purity -- they just see him as an opportunity to make a quick buck.
Written for the screen and directed by Shrader -- who wrote the screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" and directed "Cat People" and "The Comfort of Strangers" -- "Touch" makes a Capra-esque attempt at delivering a moral message, but falls disappointingly short. Juvenal succeeds as a physical and spiritual healer -- he can actually cure the sick and elderly of their ailments and afflictions -- and yet he can't cure the corrupted souls he comes into contact with (Jimmy Stewart always could). When he loses faith momentarily -- he thinks Lynn has betrayed him -- he loses belief in himself, and hence his healing powers. But they're quickly restored when he and Lynn are reunited. Can Shrader actually be sending us the clichi-laden message that love conquers all, that love is the cure? We've come to expect something edgier, more complex, from Shrader.
While Shrader is best known for making films in which the characters undergo powerful spiritual transformations, none of the characters in "Touch" are developed enough to do even a little soul searching. They move through the film as if on auto-pilot, never really connecting with each other. Walken is merely a shadow of his usual evil self, while Arnold seems almost cartoonish by contrast. Neither is believably committed to his cause. And Fonda is particularly grating as the bleached-blond, affected Lynn. Although there are palpable moments of chemistry between her and Ulrich, the development of their relationship -- they fall in love during the course of an afternoon -- feels disjointed. However sweet the notion that she will become his savior and shelter him from the riffraff trying to take advantage of him, Fonda's character is too flimsy to nurture anyone. The best performances come from Janeane Garofalo, Lolita Davidovich and Paul Mazursky in supporting roles (Davidovich is especially good as the topless-dancer mother of the young boy Juvenal cures of leukemia), but even these gems can't save the film from its own exhaustion.
The best thing by far about "Touch" is Skeet Ulrich. Currently heating up the screen as a teen psychopath in Wes Craven's "Scream," he's a refreshing new talent (and the next pinup; watch out, Hollywood). He's captivating to watch -- a bright spot in an otherwise dull film -- and brings a genuine innocence to the role of Juvenal. You want to believe in him even if you don't buy the rest of the film.
But maybe the best thing "Touch" has going for it, as "Barcelona" director Whit Stillman told the New York Observer after a recent screening, is the fact that, "It's the first really good stigmata comedy of the year."