Jimmy P (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) | C+
It’s hard to decide whether Benicio Del Toro and French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin’s sad-eyed depiction of Jimmy P, real-life Native American and World War II veteran, is a net positive or negative. On the one hand, indigenous Americans seldom make it onto the screen, and, when they do, rarely are they offered up as complicated individuals. Here, there’s at least an attempt to present a three-dimensional person.
On the other hand, Jimmy P’s culture and personality have been simplified to the point of stereotype, in order to make this low-key buddy-therapy drama more palatable to the masses. It’s an unfortunate choice, depriving an already inert film of vibrancy. (Let’s skip the arguments against a Puerto Rican star playing a Native American by chalking it up to box office economics).
Based on anthropologist George Devereux’s book Reality and Dream, the film focuses on the true story of a Blackfoot Indian James Picard (Benicio Del Toro), who suffered from head injuries sustained during the war. Blackouts, migraines, hearing loss and loss of vision plague the otherwise quiet man, but V.A. doctors conclude there is nothing physically wrong with him. Instead, they diagnose Jimmy as a schizophrenic and bring in European-born New Yorker Devereux (Mathieu Amalric) because of his anthropological studies of Mojave Indians and a hobbyist interest in Freudian psychoanalysis.
The lion’s share of the movie revolves around Jimmy’s talk-therapy sessions with Devereux and the unlikely friendship that evolves between them. Like many films in this genre (The Prince of Tides, Good Will Hunting, et al.), the root cause of Picard’s psychological distress is presented as a mystery to be solved. Desplechin and his screenwriters work hard to avoid sentimentality and focus more on the intellectual process than the outcome. Too bad the drama is so turgid and unfocused, relying on Howard Shore’s too-present score to nudge things along.
As if sensing this lack of conflict, contrived brawls with the doctors and Devereux’s love interest (Gina McKee) make an appearance, but neither energizes what amounts to a low-key therapeutic procedural. A more ill-advised choice is Desplechin’s inclusion of dream re-enactments, unconvincing forays into Jimmy P’s unconscious.
The real draw here is the chemistry generated between Amalric’s dandy-ish Devereux and Del Toro’s gentle yet brooding Picard. Not only do the two seem to enjoy each other’s company, these two dryly funny outsiders provide an interesting contrast in masculinity. As troubled and tightly coiled as Jimmy is, his regard for women is played against type, coming across as delicate, respectful and sensitive. Conversely, the erudite and skittish Devereux is a narcissistic lout, volunteering that “it clears the air” to slap a woman from time to time. Still, a few instances of conflict between the two would have deepened the relationship. Only a heated debate about religion generates any sparks.
Ultimately, the final revelations in this Freudian soap opera are anti-climactic and, more importantly, fail to suggest how Jimmy P proceeds with the rest of his life. Labeling the problem isn’t quite the same as charting a path toward a cure.
Nevertheless, as an intellectually engaging exploration of two very different men transcending cultural and historical alienation, Jimmy P earns points for attempting to depict therapy as a complicated process of uncovering a nest of wounds rather than the typical Hollywood drive toward melodrama. It may not always treat psychology with the sophistication it deserves, but it at least acknowledges that it’s an imperfect method of personal understanding.
Jimmy P (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) opens Friday, March 7, at Cinema Detroit. It is unrated and has a running time of 117 minutes.