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The bipolar saga "Touched With Fire" plays much more like a film for the people who made it rather than the audience that might go see it.
Katie Holmes gets a chance to try to prove she's a Real Actress. Writer/director Paul Dalio gets a chance to turn his own experiences with bipolar disorder into a Very Important Film.
Both of them partially but not entirely achieve their goals.
"Touched With Fire" is a tough subject and a tough sell because there are no easy answers and no happy endings with mental illness. And Carla (Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) are very much struggling with mental illness.
They're both poets she's mediocre (at best); he's just dreadful. They're both manic depressives, and when we meet them they're off their medication and in a lot of trouble. Which is how they end up in the same hospital ward, where they seem to be falling in love but is that just the bipolar disorder? What seems clear is that they're not good for each other, as they clearly demonstrate when they reunite outside the hospital.
The episodic film executes several time jumps, carrying us through a year in the lives of Carla and Marco and their extremes, from being on top of the world to trying to end it all. It's harsh and unflinching at times, but then Dalio who has been open about his struggles with bipolar disorder almost sells his movie out with a tacked-on conclusion that plays like an awkward attempt at that happy ending.
Holmes is adequate as Carla, the more subdued of the pair. But she's somewhat overshadowed by Kirby's performance as the more manic Marco.
Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman, as Carla's parents, along with Griffin Dunne, as Marco's father, provide fine performances in supporting roles that are nicely fleshed out. They're not antagonists, even when their children think they are; they're frustrated, heartbroken and concerned.
And the fact that Dalio wrote, directed, edited and scored the movie is impressive. But his take on bipolar disorder that it's more of a gift than a curse is certain to cause controversy within that community.
"Touched With Fire" is far from perfect. It feels, at times, contrived and artificial, most notably when Carla and Marco meet Kay Redfield Jamison, the real-life psychologist who wrote "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament." In it, she argues that bipolar disorder contributes to artistic achievement. Indeed, the crawl at the end dedicates the film to a long list of those she argues were manic depressive Lord Byron, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many more.
Dalio seems to be arguing that those with bipolar disorder should take their meds and lead relatively normal lives, at least when he's not arguing that manic depressives are artistic geniuses even though his protagonists are mediocre poets, at best.
"Touched With Fire" sometimes feels as if it's more interested in those arguments than anything else, and Dalio is more interested in himself than in his audience.
'Touched with Fire'
Two manic depressives have a tumultuous relationship in first-time filmmaker's drama.
Where • Area theaters
When • Opens Friday, Feb. 26.
Rating • R for language, a disturbing image, brief sexuality and drug use.
Running time • 110 minutes.