April 14, 2010 / 1:45 AM / 10 years ago

Scott, James Cann go head-to-head in "Mercy"

Actor Scott Caan attends the movie premiere of "Meet Dave" at the Mann Village theatre in Westwood, California July 8, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The title character and central love story are the least interesting elements of “Mercy,” writer-producer-star Scott Caan’s ambitious and sporadically powerful drama.

Attempting to deconstruct romantic storytelling but indulging in romance-saga improbabilities, the tale of a novelist’s life-changing affair is neither as deep nor as complex as it wants to be. When it hits its marks, though, it delivers well-observed moments. The lead actor and his father, James Caan, share the hardest-hitting scenes, and their matchup will be a key draw when IFC releases the film April 30.

As Johnny, Scott Caan is that rare creature seen mainly in movies: a fiction writer who is so successful that he lives large off his royalties. To the disappointment of his lifelong friend (a well-cast Troy Garity), he also is a serial conquistador when it comes to women. “I love it when they leave,” he admits.

His stone-cold emotional armor makes one wonder just what kind of “romance novels” Johnny is writing. Most of the movie’s writerly aspects ring false. As if it’s 1940 and a Broadway play has just opened, Johnny’s showbiz-slick agent (Dylan McDermott) meets him with a stack of papers containing hot-off-the-press reviews of his latest book. The only pan turns out to be by Mercy (Wendy Glenn), the ravishing Brit who Johnny fell for at a party the previous night, their flirtatious badinage far less beguiling for the audience than for the characters.

In its talky early sequences, Caan’s script pushes too hard; within the first half-hour, not one but two characters tell Johnny what a contradiction he is. But Caan’s performance doesn’t require such explanation. Like his father, he’s no stranger to roles of tough-guy swagger, and he knows how to strut the fine line between obnoxiousness and charm.

With the help of a retro-chic typewriter, Johnny’s story is divided into “Before” and “After” chapters, intercut in a way that propels the drama rather than merely slicing and dicing it. The fulcrum that divides the happy Johnny, who woos and wins Mercy, from his puffy, bearded, mad-at-the-world “After” version is the stuff of melodrama. And though Glenn lends an intelligent edge to Mercy, the character serves mainly as an object of desire, a perfect beauty as narrative device.

At its most compelling, the film explores the legacy of wounded hearts, with sharp glances at obsessive relationships and lonely hookups. The electric pas de deux at its center is that between Johnny and his bitter professor dad (James Caan), a commanding and charismatic parser of sentences and dismantler of sentiment. Real-life father and son infuse their characters’ interactions with a deeply tangled competitive intensity.

Director Patrick Hoelck, a fashion photographer-turned-filmmaker, puts too much emphasis on vintage hipster interiors that are distracting rather than evocative. But when he zeroes in on his actors, he gets it right. A deceptively straightforward dinner-table scene featuring an excellent Erika Christensen is engaging, tense and revelatory. And the exchanges between the Caans, in the late-night dark of a rural cabin, strip away everything but what matters: two proud and vulnerable men facing off across a bottle of booze.

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