The ideal girl wears an orange jumpsuit. At least that’s the way Tommy Warshaw (David Duchovny) remembers it. Now living in Paris and painting vapid watercolors, grownup Tommy looks back on his graceless adolescence and the girl who first thunderstruck his heart. Standing across the gymnasium at the Big Dance, complete with disco ball, Melissa (Zelda Williams) is perfect. And in this moment, younger Tommy (Anton Yelchin) sees that this moment is when his life changed forever.
Or at least this is the romantic conceit of Duchovny’s feature directorial debut (he’s directed X-Files episodes, including the excellent “The Unnatural”). Earnest and well-meaning, House of D begins as older Tommy decides to tell his own 13-year-old son (actually asleep as he begins his tale) how his life changed when he was 13, and the terrible truth he’s been hiding since then. “My story,” he declares, “starts where every man’s story starts, with mom.” And with that, you see young Tommy’s mom, a widowed nurse called only Mrs. Warshaw and played by Duchovny’s wife, Téa Leoni (surely, she’s an excellent and fearless performer but still, she’s playing his mother; the only time she appears out of his sight — it’s his memory, so he’s guessing — is when he leaves her for the dance, and she’s heartbreakingly forlorn in the living room alone). “She was lost without my father, but sometimes I could find her,” remembers older Tommy. “And sometimes she didn’t want to be found.” Ouch. She’s better off when he’s not in the room, only she doesn’t know it.
Worried about mom — she smokes at the table, carefully observing him as he eats the Brussels sprouts she’s prepared in an effort to ensure his good health — Tommy turns his energies to his best friend and food delivery partner, the mentally handicapped Pappass (Robin Williams). Or rather, he’s handicapped when it suits the plot, and he’s spot-on when Tommy’s story calls for it. So, Pappass is mostly slow to respond when the local boys tease him, but able to slam the stickball out of the lot when Tommy needs to impress Melissa; likewise, Pappass can get Tommy’s jokes and also speak without his usual stammer or confusion when Tommy needs him to front for him. “I know what I know,” Pappass asserts, “And I know what I don’t know.”
Tommy’s other fount of emotional aid comes in the form of a Magical Negro, wise, helpful, and spiritual in her way. Scraping around outside the women’s prison in the Greenwich Village, Tommy catches the attention of an inmate whose cell is high above the street (a pimp hangs out below, played with a big hat by good sport Orlando Jones). Afro-headed Bernadette (Erykah Badu) uses her mirror to catch glimpses of the gangly kid on the sidewalk. Whenever he’s worried about Pappas or Melissa, Bernadette is available (“Hey lady!” he yells up, and she appears at her cell window, with glimpses inside for you and only a hand visible to Tommy). She’s fond of delivering just the right bit of pithy advice: when Tommy believes that he’s ruined his chances with Melissa because he let slip to another boy that she was “flat,” Bernadette laughs out loud. “Tell her you have small balls,” she suggests. It seems inconceivable, but he tries it (after first apologizing: “I’m sorry about the flat incident”) and it works. Melissa forgives his earlier trespass and not only finds him charming, but also Pappass, who comes along for the ride. Drinking soda and burping joyously, he’s starting to look like the life of this party. “By the way,” he announces, “I have a huge penis.”
Earnest though it may be, House of D is also painfully stiff and strangely “literary,” laced through with obvious metaphors and patterns: mom’s fear of not being able to breathe repeats odiously; Tommy’s desire for an expensive bike returns to make him pay; and mom, as he suggests, is both the beginning and end of his undisclosed, traumatic past. The film doesn’t quite judge her, but, like many children struggling to understand their own parts in their memories, Tommy wishes she was different.
While the film purports to trace Tommy’s coming to terms with his mother, his past, and his responsibility, it grants precious little insight into that process. As an adult, telling the story to his son, and more importantly, his understanding French wife, grants him the sense of purpose to return to New York, where the primary elements of that pasta are conveniently available for rearranging. Positing trauma as an oddly formative and even more oddly aesthetic experience, House of D never quite achieves the gravity or even the occasional irony for which it reaches. Rather, the film remains stuck between tones and clichés.