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To see the difference between turgid melodrama and tragedy, you need look no further than broadcast TV’s dozen recent This Is Us knockoffs — Council of Dads, I’m looking at you — and Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True.
Like the book it’s based upon, Cianfrance’s limited series is a tragedy of the deepest and most spiraling sort — not a pandering effort to jerk tears from the fragile viewer, but a torrent of grounded misery so unrelenting it passes from Strindberg to Shakespeare to something biblical. The family at the center of I Know This Much Is True seems endlessly cursed but in a way that theoretically leads to revelation and maybe healing. The Blue Valentine auteur knows a thing or two about finding emotional truth in wallowing, which is a good thing because if the performances in I Know This Much Is True weren’t as terrific as they are, the catharsis probably wouldn’t justify the exhausting duration.
AIR DATE May 10, 2020
If you are planning to watch I Know This Much Is True, you either have fond memories of Lamb’s particular brand of populist doorstop angst, which had a wave of Oprah-spawned vogue more than 20 years ago, or you’re intrigued by the idea of Mark Ruffalo playing very different identical twin brothers — one svelte and one husky, one goateed and one clean-shaven, one a paranoid schizophrenic and the other plagued by anger issues.
The dual roles of Dominick and Thomas Birdsey make for, as one would expect, a tour de force for Ruffalo. As the story begins, Thomas has just perpetrated an act of horrible violence on himself as part of a delusional protest against the first Gulf War, causing him to be committed in a maximum security hospital. Dominick, who has spent his life as his brother’s keeper, is desperate to get him moved to a laxer facility, which requires long conversations with social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) and therapist Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) — conversations that touch on the twins’ socially awkward mother (Melissa Leo) and affection-withholding stepfather Ray (John Procaccino), as well as Dom’s tragedy-marked divorce from Dessa (Kathryn Hahn) and current relationship with innocuously vapid aerobics instructor Joy (Imogen Poots).
It’s a story that spans decades and goes back to the Old Country of Italy, as Dom seeks answers for his present predicament by trying to understand his past, including his mysterious paternal lineage.
You name the adversity and it comes into play in I Know This Much Is True. Cancer. Crib death. Car accidents. Rape. Grieving of all shapes and sizes. This is not light quarantine viewing.
For the most part, Cianfrance’s adaptation — Anya Epstein co-wrote the finale, which runs a whopping 78 minutes — sticks very close to Lamb’s text, right down to the dialogue, which isn’t always the most effective decision. Even with this substantial running time, Lamb’s book has to be condensed, and by the third and fourth episodes, the story has become such a steady stream of harrowing misadventures that it’s hard not to engage in morbid laughter. And that isn’t intentional since the only humorous outlet in the project is Dom’s best friend, Leo, played by Rob Huebel with far more subtlety than the character had on the page.
Cianfrance struggles with the book’s most challenging and tonally confusing segment — revolving around the protagonists’ Italian grandfather — which plays here as a subpar My Brilliant Friend episode. He’s also made the questionable choice to remove nearly the entire 1969 portion of the story, which cuts out Dom’s darkest character beats and somewhat cheapens the story’s end but also covers for the spotty casting of Philip Ettinger, who is way too old to be playing teenage twins. Cianfrance might have found more thematic value in the period setting, but at least he avoids ’90s nostalgia kitsch.
Behind the camera, the director maintains the jittery intimacy that has marked his big-screen features. He relies heavily on the sort of extreme close-ups that aren’t usually part of the televisual vernacular, combining with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes on a gritty and grainy aesthetic more familiar from indie films.
It’s a style that captures all of Ruffalo’s fragility and pent-up rage. The two Ruffaloes have a sweet and sad chemistry, each seeming ever on the brink of self-destruction. The technology pairing the brothers is fairly seamless, though it’s interesting that the tightness of Cianfrance’s framing accentuates the individual performances and not the stunt of their interaction. Dom is the more dynamic brother, though Ruffalo’s quieter, more monosyllabic turn as Thomas arguably does more heavy lifting.
It’s hard not to compare this volatile performance to Ruffalo’s even better work in You Can Count on Me — and to acknowledge that as American tragedians go, Kenneth Lonergan is in a different world from Wally Lamb — but he totally delivers in a part made for award nominations. It will be significantly more confusing when the highly billed Leo, verging on a non-factor here, gets similar recognition.
There are still great supporting performances, especially from Procaccino, whose turn starts in a dark place — Thomas’ complaints of abuse are harrowing, if not reliable — and evolves with surprising emotion. O’Donnell, stripped of any hint of wisecracking, builds off the momentum of her great work in SMILF and Panjabi has a quiet and impressive empathy. Hahn is, as ever, astonishingly good even when she has almost no dialogue and Poots solidly weathers a character that both Dom and the series, which removes basically all of Joy’s best scenes, look down on.
The acting, and Cianfrance’s commitment to letting the performances play out in long, uninterrupted conversations, are what occasionally make I Know This Much Is True feel exhilarating, rather than just like a miserablist dirge. The conclusions the series reaches after six episodes, alas, aren’t as revelatory as they should be regarding mental illness, family and what hope any of us can find when we’re lost in dark places.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Melissa Leo, Rosie O’Donnell, Archie Panjabi, Imogen Poots, Juliette Lewis, Kathryn Hahn, John Procaccino
Creator-director: Derek Cianfrance
Premieres: Sunday, May 10, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
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