It’s hard to say which is more ubiquitous in American cinema: love stories between people or Hollywood’s love of itself. The former’s usually easier to spot: just look for any movie ad featuring two people. The latter, however, doesn’t always announce itself as loudly as you might expect (loudly networking and dressed in glaringly embroidered Ed Hardy). After all, according to cultural critic Mike Davis, Los Angeles is the city that has most often been demolished onscreen. It’s tragic love, as if Hollywood were substituting its own special effects for Shakespearean love-pact poison and daggers.
Watching Mercy, the debut feature film from director Patrick Hoelck, it’s easy to understand why.
Ostensibly, Mercy is a love story between two characters, the disillusioned Los Angelino writer Johnny (Scott Caan) and the non-disillusioned critic of writers Mercy (Wendy Glenn). Johnny doesn’t believe in love, but makes his living writing books about it. He also hates women (“I love it when they leave in the morning!”) but really misses his long-dead mommy. He’s really good at hiding his misogyny/misanthropy with his elfish grin and his constant comments that Hoelck seems to believe contain wit.
Mercy, on the other hand, is pretty and thin.
It’s a match made in heaven. So naturally, Johnny approaches her at a party for the release of his latest book to proposition her, in all of his jr. high schoolish charm, for sex. While we later find out that she had already read, reviewed, and destroyed his book, alas, Johnny’s gym-rat leprechaun physique and excessive hair gel is too much for her.
We don’t see much of their romance, and what we glimpse is near intolerable: a scene of them in bed somewhere pretty along the California coast (Johnny: You’re beautiful. Mercy: I love it when you tell me that. Johnny: I’ll tell you every day.), some not-quite-witty banter, and Johnny making the momentous step of telling her he respects her opinion about his writing (he also says that she’s the only woman he can stand talking to — aw!).
But their romance isn’t really that important, anyway. Somewhere along the way, Johnny abruptly has a beard. He’s angry, he drinks a lot, and he punches people randomly. Through flashbacks (beard: Angry Johnny; no beard: Happy Johnny) we eventually discover that (SPOILER ALERT!) Mercy died, caught in an elevator without her asthma inhaler after leaving it in Johnny’s car.
Her death is the most memorable, and troubling, moment in the film: lying on her back, the lighting making her vacant eyes sparkle and her red lips pop; she’s never looked prettier than after she’s finally become the inanimate object that both Johnny and Hoelk saw her as all along.
She’s also never been more useful. After Johnny punches enough people, he sits down and writes a book about her. Along the way, he gets over his issues and even meets a new girl, as the film’s credits roll. It’s more the tragic story of Hollywood’s love of itself than it is romance. It’s just too bad Hoelk didn’t realize that.