Filmmakers love crazy people. Be it the opportunity to delve into the complex human psyche or to simply show off neato camera tricks, the use of a mentally handicapped protagonist has inspired filmmakers for years ranging from mainstream films such as “A Beautiful Mind” to more edgy offbeat work like “Clean, Shaven”. In his feature film debut Mark Banning has crafted a well meaning but ultimately disappointing portrait of a young man unable to cope with his inner demons.
Despite the support of his best friend Paul (Andre Royo), Jacob (Michael Ealy) is finding it hard to adjust to life beyond the walls of a mental institution. Jacob’s pills make him sluggish, his brother views him as a freak and his mother (Angela Nirvana) fails to admit that there is a problem at all. Following an awkward visit to an ex-girlfriend Jacob spies Cindy (Opal Aladdin) on the street and for a moment his life is given hope. Drawn to her beauty Jacob begins lying about his own life to win her favor, eventually ignoring his medication in order to come off as a warmer person. Jacob grows closer to her and her young son and is happy for a while. However Jacob was under medication for a reason and his peaceful new life quickly begins to unravel.
There are a lot of little touches that go a long way in “Jellysmoke” including a discussion between Jacob and Paul regarding baseball taking a darker turn as Jacob’s mind plays tricks upon him. Yet despite these clever asides and the game cast the film never really seems to capture the audience. Ealy’s portrayal of Jacob is effective but the character is too cold for the audience to relate to. Since he is emotionally distant for most of the film’s running time thanks to the disease and his medication we never grow to care for his plight. The film’s early emphasis seems to be upon the relationship between Jacob and Cindy but as he grows increasingly erratic she (wisely) steers clear, leaving the film without one of the major characters and with nowhere to go. Other elements such as flashbacks to the asylum and Jacob’s brother come off as forced. The mental institute is more of a mishmash of movie cliches instead of a real place and Jacob’s brutish brother seems to drift in and out of the movie never coming off as an authentic character, only appearing when the story needs him.
The strongest moments in “Jellysmoke” are the quiet, intimate ones between Jacob and Paul. Early scenes illustrate Paul’s tenderness towards his friend while later ones show Paul’s growing fear that even he may not be able to hold his friend in check. There is a wonderful tension that develops between the two friends that Banning would have been better off using as the backbone of the film.
As it stands now, “Jellysmoke” is a missed opportunity based upon an interesting core concept. The film tends to drift too much, never finding the right footing for Jacob and those around him. Banning and company needed to rein in the story, playing up to the strengths (Jacob and Paul) and downplaying the weaker elements (Jacob and his family, Jacob in the institute) instead of vice versa. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments, most movies could use a relationship as well crafted as the one between Jacob and Paul. “Jellysmoke” is filled with good ideas and hopefully in his next outgoing Banning will be able to present his story in a tighter manner giving his material a greater resonance.