There is romantic comedy, there is romantic drama, and then there is Good Dick, Marianna Polk’s Sundance-pleasing oddity that quietly slips between and beyond – both genres without ever quite falling off its own edge. And rest assured, there is a lot of edge to be found here.
For a start, there is that title, which turns out to mean pretty much what you think it does, but without the accompanying cheapness or low laughs that you might expect. This is an intense character study rather than a gross-out comedy and it is the better for it.
Then there is the nature of the central courtship. A homeless videostore clerk with a troubled background (Jason Ritter) notices a painfully withdrawn customer (Palka herself) renting softcore titles, and engages her in halting conversation, despite his colleague’s warning: “Dude, you can’t talk to the porn customers the same way you talk to the ones who are renting Truffaut for the twelfth time.”
Soon the clerk is pursuing the woman (neither is ever named) to her apartment and insinuating himself into her life, with all the relentless cunning of a stalker. The relationship, too, free of actual sex but full of voyeuristic viewing and near abusive aggression from the woman, develops along lines that appear to transcend indie notions of ‘quirky’ towards something more uncomfortably perverse.
So, for a while at least, Good Dick almost has the feel of a creepy psycho-thriller. Yet as the woman turns out to have problems far greater than her suitor’s, and as he is revealed to be less a sex pest than a concerned (if persistent) admirer who grants his beloved the power to reclaim herself, what emerges is a gentle, finely drawn examination of the healing power of intimacy.
Even the clerk’s relationship to his all-male co-workers (Eric Edelstein, Martin Starr, Mark Webber), at first reminiscent of the crude banter in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, turns out to conceal a family-like structure of care, love and support not unlike that which the clerk will offer to his self-exiled inamorata.
All this inevitably recalls the language of therapy. “That was great, step by step,” as the clerk puts it, subtly betraying his own background in recovery programmes and the woman too, we eventually learn, has had her share of counselling, and with good reason. This being a romance (of sorts), we can anticipate the guy and the girl overcoming obstacles to get back together in the end but what is unusual here is that those obstacles are completely internal.
The clerk who claims to be “really great at picking out films for people” serves as a sort of cinematic psychiatrist to his customer, instantly analysing her innermost desires and deviancies through her choice of films, and slowly guiding her to a different kind of movie experience, better suited to her needs and general well-being.
If the opportunity afforded by this film to peek in on its two characters’ most deep-seated dysfunctions might seem to some as intrusive as stalking and as exploitative as scopophilia, then Palka is at pains to expose the all too human yearnings that underlie both activities.
Not that the film is without its problems. Despite its broader interests in love, sex and redemption, Good Dick brings an almost hermetic specificity to its concerns, and features principal characters with whom most cinemagoers will struggle to identify, so that they may well be left wondering how to relate the film to their own experiences, or indeed what exactly its point is.
Nonetheless, it is hard not to admire its claustrophobic atmosphere, not to be thrilled by its ambiguous leads (who keep veering from predator to victim and back again), and not to be moved by the final scenes (even if they rather cheekily steal a secret from Lost in Translation). So go on and prove yourself as brave as Palka has been in making this film by taking a date to it.