‘Mercy’: How can you mend a broken heart?

April 27, 2010

Scott Caan has kind of a blocky build, brawny even – barrel-chested, short-waisted. He also has a perhaps-genetically infused look of cockiness that gives him the air of the punk, even when he’s guarded about his body language.


He’s played more than his share of thugs and wiseacres – but he casts himself as a likable Lothario who gets ambushed by love in “Mercy,” a drama he wrote and stars in, opening in limited release Friday (4/30/10).


Directed by Patrick Hoelck, “Mercy” features Caan as Johnny Ryan, a smart, attractive author of the kind of romances that wind up on the best-seller list. A cynic about love with no interest in commitment or intimacy, Johnny almost instantly meets his match in Mercy (Wendy Glenn), whose negative review provided the only sour note in a chorus of critical approval for his new book.


Johnny is a potentially substantial guy who spends more time worrying that he might be shallow than in actually trying to do something about it. Yet Caan has an easy-going charm, fast-talking and articulate without being aggressive. So when he finds himself unalterably attracted to Mercy, he stops listening to his own counsel to his friends: Love doesn’t exist. There is no such thing.


Her criticism: that his book lacks real insight into love. So Johnny sets out to gain the kind of experience that she says he’s missing – and winds up falling hard for Mercy.


Johnny is a writer with quirks, one of which is that he does all his typing on a portable manual typewriter: hard to get much more old school than that. Caan and Hoelck, however, carve up the narrative into a teasing “Before” segment, in which Johnny meets and pursues Mercy, and a much grimmer “After” segment – with Caan hiding behind a massive beard and a raging case of self-pity.


In “After,” Johnny is obviously feeling Mercy’s loss and we can only imagine why she left. He’s all but withdrawn from the world, still upset about the fact that he and Mercy are no longer together. He gets into fights, otherwise moping around, mourning Mercy’s absence. He’s a guy who broke his own rules and lived to regret the decision.


He winds up at his father’s house, where his father (played by James Caan, with surprising vulnerability) reminds him about the first time Johnny introduced him to Mercy. And that kicks the story back into the past and the resolution of Mercy’s fate.


That fate is not shocking, though it does surprise. Caan’s script refuses to yield to cliché, though it doesn’t necessarily yield the kind of impact he intends, except after the fact.


“Mercy” works because Caan is so likably believable. He’s the guy whose expertise in writing romantic literature is all theoretical. While struggling not to fall in love, he recognizes who he will become if he stays with this woman – without anticipating how crushed he’ll be when she’s no longer there.


Glenn has a catlike quality, though she still allows herself to be wooed by naked attention. But it’s Caan’s touchingly clueless longing for her that makes her shine – and makes “Mercy” stand out as an adult romantic drama that earns its hankies.


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