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Sundance 2010: Sympathy for Ruffalo? How to go from zero to hero at the same festival

January 29, 2010 |  1:19 pm

Exactly 10 years ago, Mark Ruffalo became the toast of Sundance when "You Can Count on Me" won the Grand Jury Prize for drama and went on to become one of the year's biggest indie hits. His career took off from there, with roles in indie classics such as  "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to go along with the occasional studio paycheck (including this February's "Shutter Island" directed by Martin Scorsese).

Ruffalo A decade later, the actor was again back in Park City as a lion of the festival -- and, briefly, as its punching bag.

Sundance fortunes rise and fall, but rarely do they rise and fall so quickly. Last Saturday, "Sympathy for Delicious," Ruffalo's passion project and directorial debut involving a rock band and paraplegic faith healer -- a movie that ran a gantlet of obstacles even to get made, including production delays due to the death of Ruffalo's brother -- premiered to some of the festival's most tepid responses. 

"There's a lot of spirit of rock 'n' roll in it," Ruffalo said in a interview at the Bing Bar in conjunction with the movie's premiere. But many moviegoers heard only elevator music. Several people we spoke to who saw "Sympathy" found the band aspects inert, and were also put off by the strange premise and unconvincingly dour tone. So far, the film (in which Ruffalo also costars) hasn't found any buyers. It could sit on the shelf for a while, actually, especially as some of even the better-received titles still search for distribution.

But barely 48 hours later, Ruffalo went from zero to hero when "The Kids Are All Right" played to some of the warmest responses of the festival. Ruffalo's turn in Lisa Cholodenko's dramedy, as a sperm donor for a lesbian couple who comes back into the lives of the pair and their now-teenage offspring, drew immediate award talk and was one of the key reasons buyers chased the film.

"What he does that's so extraordinary is he makes the character so sympathetic," says Mandalay Vision executive Celine Rattray, a producer on "Kids." "He's an outsider and you're not supposed to root for him. But you totally do."

"Kids" offered a bookend of sorts to "You Can Count on Me" that was hard to ignore. Here, as in that movie, Ruffalo was playing a likable drifter who, after years away, arrives back on the scene to see what he'd sowed (and create a few new problems).

Ruffalo declined through a representative to comment for this piece. But the ability to find redemption with "Kids" had to feel a little weird, for a simple reason: He nearly didn't star in the film. The actor turned down the role several times -- because, of all things, he was editing "Sympathy." (He was finally persuaded just a short time before production started this past July. (In another moment of star alignment, the film wasn't even supposed to come to Sundance -- it arrived as a last-minute, uncataloged addition after organizers coaxed filmmakers to finish it in time.)

For all of its drama, Ruffalo's phoenix act may say more about the unique micro-climate of Sundance than it does about him. The cool response to "Sympathy" points up the strict standards of the indie crowd, unwilling to forgive artifice even -- or especially -- when it come with a movie that sits in Sundance's quirky-drama wheelhouse.

But the reception Ruffalo drew for "Kids" shows that the Sundance audience is also a comeback-loving group. You can commit a sin with with them, but return with a good performance several days later, and that same audience will tell you that it's all, well, all right.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Mark Ruffalo. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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