Sometime between the death of Princess Diana and the rise of Paris Hilton, the role of the paparazzi in mainstream American consciousness was elevated to the stature of battlefield reportage. Take any random video posted on TMZ.com – the kind featuring boldfaces avoiding swarms of eager photographers – and you’ll see the remarkable desperation involved in attempts to attain closeness with the celebrity realm. The paparazzo’s struggles, a combination of invasiveness and superficial affability (“We love you, Britney! Right here, Britney!”), are nearly as fascinating objects of study as the celebrities themselves. That’s the analytical engine of Delirious, Tom DiCillo’s quirky study of lonely photographer Les (Steve Buscemi), obsessed with stalking fame but unable to confront the personalities behind the lucrative mythology. The movie is a confusion of sensibilities: It views successful members of the entertainment industry as noble artisans solely intent on furthering their crafts, while the masses drool over celebrity talents and the dreamy luxury of their ubiquitous lifestyles. Sympathies for the little man are trumped by a tabloid mentality.
DiCillo’s first feature in five years, Delirious was the other movie at Sundance this past January starring Buscemi as a shifty entertainment journalist. The dominant one, a remake of the late Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s Interview (which Buscemi wrote and directed; reviewed in our Aug. 16, 2007, issue), is superior in terms of context and credibility. He plays a despondent reporter unsatisfied with the celebrity beat and resigned to exploiting gossip tidbits from an actress’ personal life in order to keep his meager career above water. In Delirious, his character can barely float; he’s a freelance photographer stuck in the aimless routine of red-carpet circuses, crowd-surfing for fleeting shots of stardom to turn a profit.
Having established Les as a sleazy loser (the performer’s usual turf), DiCillo introduces a counterpoint: naive, homeless heartthrob Toby (Michael Pitt), whose immediate admiration for a perceived lavishness in Les’ work convinces him to embrace the photographer as a mentor – a role that Les is all too eager to play. Delirious pairs the two men together with Odd Couple chemistry, but the scenario is misleading. Once Toby learns that Les has little to offer beyond his own pathetic monetary obsessions, he ditches the paparazzi game to become a reality television star, pursuing a romantic interest in pop singer K’Harma (Alison Lohman), a relationship that Les hopes to exploit for some snapshots.
With this shifting of loyalties, Delirious justifies its title, but confuses its perspective. Fame takes the high ground – the successful entertainers live out their lives in creative bliss, while lower-class miscreants like Les scurry about like ants. If the sensationalism of tabloid journalism glosses over true capabilities, it still tends to highlight certain grimy truths about the base temptations that such lifestyles usually entail. But the celebs are sincerely dreamy in Delirious, and the finale has you rooting for the triumph of glamour over sincerity.
The defining moment, amusing in its way, arrives at the halfway point. Buscemi’s character encounters Elvis Costello at a party and, hilariously stammering, he locks up, unable to interact with the renowned musician except through the lens of his professional weapon. There’s an irony in this moment that undercuts the story’s moral thrust. If we’re to believe that the camera flattens the soul of its subjects, then Delirious itself – a creature of the camera, after all – is a victim of its own vitriol.