It’s been six years since Arnaud Desplechin’s widely hailed 2008 holiday melodrama A Christmas Tale, a film that was as rich, inviting and maddening as it was overstuffed and energetic. His latest, Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), which premiered at Cannes to much lesser praise, finds the director ditching the sprawling scope of his previous film, this time focusing on the true story of a pair of men and the bond they reach through psychotherapy. While at first glance this seems appropriate material for Desplechin to delve into, Jimmy P. comes across as a willfully uneven psychiatric period drama, in which a great deal is articulated only to yield less than desirable results.
Still, Jimmy P. is far from a failure and remains intermittently interesting due to its cast. The reliable Benicio del Toro plays Native American Blackfoot Jimmy Picard, a gentle WWII vet plagued by spells of dizziness, headaches, odd dreams, and recurring hearing loss. Brought in to make sense of Picard’s affliction and schizophrenic diagnosis is French anthropologist and Native American researcher Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric). The casting of the two actors might suggest a far more enlivened look at the subject matter at hand, but Deplechin surprisingly scales back the theatrics, paving the way for a much more sobering and traditional narrative.
Brought in by the military hospital in Topeka, Kansas that originally treats Jimmy, Devereux’s consultation with Jimmy winds up being the obvious core of the film, unfurling as a series of stoic, stone-faced discussions between doctor and patient that often border on clinical banality. Del Toro does manage to provide some of the most understated work of his career as Picard, a giant of a man who gets into his dreams, his regrets, and his sex life with Devereux. The two actors work well together, but the “working through” aspect of the therapy and the film in general is too plainly manufactured to function at a higher level.
The sterile process that the film is fixated on is admirable, but Jimmy P. rarely gets at anything engrossing or interesting about its characters. Desplechin’s regular penchant for heavy articulation is present once again, but the relaxed tones that the dialogues take on are predictably dreary. There’s little to offset this, only a subplot involving Devereux’s affair with a married woman (Gina McKee), which manages to breathe life into the film while simultaneously halting its progression.
In essence, the procedural aspects of this film stand in stark contrast to the frenzied and emotionally rich territory that Desplechin has mined before; Jimmy P. is consistently free of any scenes that result in a “breakthrough” or deluge of melodrama. In stripping down the sentiment, Desplechin allows for this case study to fully flesh itself out. But in the end, all talk unfortunately makes Jimmy P. a dull film.