Is the timing of the release of "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things" fortuitous or just unfortunate? An adaptation of JT LeRoy's short stories of the same name, Asia Argento's film opens on the heels of the year's second big literary hoax/fraud/fun-magnet: the revelation that the 25-year-old, cross-dressing, former drug addict, ex-prostitute, Martha Plimpton look-alike and celebrity darling author known as JT LeRoy was, in fact, on the page, a 40-year-old San Francisco writer named Laura Albert. (In public, hidden under wigs and sunglasses, he was played by 25-year-old Savannah Knoop, half-sister of Alpert's partner.) Re the timing: The film's distributors are going with fortuitous. And why not?
The movie, for those unfamiliar with the collection of short stories, deals in the same brand of trailer goth lovingly embraced by publishers, celebrities, talk-show hosts and basically anyone who's anyone in the world of peeping chic. It's the story of a most wretched little urchin in the seediest kind of peril -- the kind involving sex, drugs, prostitution, abandonment, molestation and -- oh, why not, as long as the big guns are blazing -- fanatical evangelical religion of the most punishing kind.
How the revelation that JT is an invention will affect general enjoyment of the film is hard to say -- though the stories were presented as fiction, they came with the implicit assurance that all of its horrors had in fact been heroically suffered by an actual individual, and a mysterious and photogenic one at that. Without that someone, the sorry tale of Jeremiah, son of a drug-addicted truck-stop prostitute named Sarah, becomes a shopworn garland of contemporary horror cliches, stylishly packaged by Argento, who definitely has an eye and an ear for this sort of thing.
Argento delivers this punk rock fright-fest -- informing us that only losers say "punk rock" -- with panache. Against the stripped-down grubbiness of the images, the angelic good looks of Jimmy Bennett, who plays Jeremiah at age 7, and Dylan and Cole Sprouse, who play him at 11, stand out in stark contrast. The old-school horror imagery that crops up now and again throughout the film is low-tech and effective -- Jeremiah is visited by imaginary crows, who peck at him and pull at his flesh like taffy. And the performances by all three children are scarily convincing. Still, it's a taxing bit of exploitation, which, although you're glad to know it's a work of fiction, doesn't exactly make a case for itself as art.
The movie begins when Jeremiah is removed from the home of his loving foster parents by his foul-mouthed, scantily clad and suspiciously foreign-accented mother, Sarah. The clothes and demeanor are attributable to her occupation, the accent to the fact that she is played by Argento, who mixes a Southern drawl in with her Italian accent. The explanation provided is that her mother was Italian -- and as we know, children of one immigrant parent, even when brought up in West Virginia with conventionally accented siblings -- tend to retain their mothers' speech patterns. The result is that Sarah is given to saying things like, "If my father had let me, you'd long ago been flushed down some toe-let" when, obviously, what she means to say is "ter-let."
The movie features performances by several friends of JT -- among them Winona Ryder, who plays the part of a child psychologist with a frightening edge. Marilyn Manson shows up as one of Sarah's many boyfriends, and Italian film star Ornella Muti, plays her Jesus-freak of a mother. The scenes that take place when Jeremiah is reclaimed by his grandparents and molded into a street-corner proselytizer feel straight out of V.C. Andrews, which you'd think might have raised flags.
But Argento, whose use of music is flawless, occasionally displays a feel for the jittery carpet-dread and condo-horror of dead-end living, as in the scene where Jeremiah is left behind by his mother and her husband to fend for himself with a slice of American cheese. Jeremiah rations it with the patience and parsimony of a wartime orphan, but the story spreads it thick.
MPAA rating: Rated R for sexual content, drug use and language.
A Palm Pictures release. Director Asia Argento. Screenplay Argento, Alessandro Magania. Based on the book by JT LeRoy. Producers Chris Hanley, Alain de la Mata, Roberta Hanley and Brian Young. Director of photography Eric Edwards. Editor Jim Mol. Music by Marco Costoldi, Sonic Youth. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.