'Touched with Fire' review: Well-meaning, but flawed, mental illness drama
The well-acted and well-meaning mental illness drama "Touched with Fire" (opening in select cities nationwide Feb. 19) earnestly, desperately wants to be a revelatory insight into bipolar disorder. While this work aims for the profound, it ultimately has more in common with a made-for-TV movie than a serious work of cinematic drama.
In short: Two struggling poets with bipolar disorder (Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby) begin a whirlwind romance -- a relationship strained by their mutual rejection to take medication and their embrace of the highs and lows of their illness. (Watch the trailer)
"Touched" fluctuates between being a movie the frustrates and mesmerizes. It is very clear writer-director Paul Dalio created a film that takes the audiences on the whiplash-inducing ride of the incredible highs and dangerous lows of bipolar disorder.
To that end, casting Holmes and Kirby was Dalio's best filmmaking decision - these two actors completely throw themselves into the chaotic characters who are clearly perfect for each other but tragically wrong for one another. The performances from Holmes and Kirby are the strength of "Touched." Their frenetic chemistry forms the essential tumultuous energy for the two poets to ride. Their nuanced handling of such big characters keeps the troubled poets from becoming insulting caricatures of mental illness -- these are two passionate people in the depths of their disease.
"Touched with Fire" works when it allows its characters to exist in the sheer whirlwind of bipolar disorder. Sadly, this film also tends toward the preachy and melodramatic all too often -- and to make matters worse, this is not a well structured narrative drama. This movie blindly and simply plows from one bit of melodrama to the next - often without setting up the next plot point or often leaving too many loose ends unresolved. Dalio shoved these two characters into the framework of a three-act narrative -- but one that is edited with a meat cleaver.
Instead of being an interesting character portrait of people living with bipolar disorder, "Touched" is a ham-handed narrative that shoves its two lead characters from one plot point to the next requisite plot point. Sometimes character actions are met with brutal consequences (such as one of the characters abandoning a job) but other times, huge character actions (such as attempted suicide or driving a car into a river) are met with almost zero consequences. It's this type of fundamental inconsistency of storytelling that makes "Touched with Fire" a frustrating viewing. The choppy, frayed editing only further exposes just how poorly assembled and executed this film is.
Finally, "Touched with Fire" would be so much more effective if only it was not so preachy. Dalio lists, ad nauseam, practically every single brilliant artist, philosopher and thinker in history that lived with bipolar disorder. This film beats the audience over the head with the idea that the disorder is a "gift." All or none of that may be true - but this film's condescending tone and apparent need to bludgeon the viewer with this message reveals a lack of respect for the audience's intellect. Simply repeatedly yelling one of your film's thesis points at the audience is just poor writing.
Final verdict: A pair of impressive performances are wasted in this formulaic and oppressively preachy work. Although it effectively forces the audience to experience the mesmerizing/crippling highs and lows, this is simply not a well executed piece of filmmaking.
"Touched with Fire" opens in theaters nationwide Feb. 19. This drama is rated R for language, a disturbing image, brief sexuality and drug use.