Way back in 1994, Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) was portrayed in some ways as a more complete person than intellectually disabled dolt Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) despite having no legs courtesy of his tour in Vietnam. More recently we had them romantic dramedy Me Before You, where a young woman falls for a quadriplegic man.
Neither were strictly comedies, but the dance of portraying someone with a real disability that can be quite tragic in the real world and poking fun at it in a genre like romantic comedy is a delicate one to manage.
“Ode to Joy” does so, and it might be because of the care it takes in being respectful that any real potential narrative heat is missing from the movie too. It feels like the kind of thing that had a much more interesting script by someone familiar with the condition suffered by the protagonist, but some producer threw a lot of the darkness out in order to stitch it all to a meet-cute big city love story.
Sad sack New Yorker Charlie (Martin Freeman) has cataplexy. Related to narcolepsy, he can faint dead away as a response to strong emotions. So as the movie asks, how can a man incapable of strong feelings possibly cope with falling in love?
The opportunity presents itself when the gorgeous Francesca (Morena Baccarin) comes into the library arguing loudly with her current boyfriend. Francesca and her life is everything Charlie isn’t – loud, colourful, emotional and chaotic. She’s so beautiful he can’t help but be drawn to her, but he knows there’s no chance of it working when something as simple as a kiss might see him fall and knock himself out.
That’s the hook, and director Jason Winer only has to point the camera at the script by Max Werner (based on a real life story) to see how Charlie, Francesca and their families and friends figure it all out.
Charlie does his best to set Francesca up with his brother Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie himself accompanying them both and a socially awkward customer at the library he thinks will suit him perfectly (Melissa Rauch) on a trip away for a few days.
It provides the requisite romantic tension Charlie (and the audience) both feel – his pain at the woman he really wants being with another man but knowing it can never work with her.
Aside from that extended set piece there’s enough going on around the periphery like Francesca’s firebrand Aunt who’s battling cancer (Jane Curtin) to prop up the main premise.
It’s just that what could have been a much more incisive tale is instead another modern New York set rom com, and you’ve seen enough of those to know where it’s all going from a few minutes in.