Midnight Cowboy (1969), that Oscar-winning classic of subterranean New York City, gets the homage it deserves with the wry, amusing Delirious, Tom DeCillo’s loose comic update, which opens Friday at the Kendall Square. Dustin Hoffman’s human rodent, Ratso Rizzo, has turned into a cranky, paranoid, gossip-page freelance photographer named Les Galantine who’s beautifully embodied by Steve Buscemi. A workaholic loner, Les occupies a dusty walk-up flat in Chinatown, and he’s probably been nesting in there with rent control for 30 years.
Jon Voigt’s Joe Buck, the dumb-as-a-stick Midnight Cowboy stud newly arrived in New York City, turns into a Philly runaway named Toby (Michael Pitt, the Kurt Cobain character in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days), who moves laterally from sleeping in a dumpster to guesting in Les’s sliding-door closet. Toby is more modest about his sexual prowess than the bragging Buck. Still, as with Buck, everyone in Gotham City, including the very fashionable, wants to fondle this out-of-town naïf. Is it Cory’s floppy blond hair, or his dim-of-conscious blue eyes? Whatever!
Cory becomes Les’s unpaid assistant, which means helping Les to elbow his way into fashionable clubs, where he can shove his lens into the displeased faces of insta-celebs. Maybe a magazine wants photos? Les’s two most lucrative “money shots” are, however, of longer-lasting talents: Goldie Hawn eating lunch and Elvis Costello caught (gasp!) without a hat.
Les is a cockroach, with no qualms about slithering through life. He’s selfish, mean-spirited, jealous of other paparazzi’s commercial success — and yet, thanks to Buscemi, this bush-league talent sustains your interest. Just when he seems impossibly venal, Les shows his vulnerable side, as when he visits his crusty parents deep in Brooklyn and they insult him instead of supporting him. But don’t get to feeling sorry for poor Les. Just when you grudgingly start to like him, he does something dreadful again.
In the meantime, Cory has started to pass his mentor in the Manhattan grub chain. A pouty-lipped casting director (Gina Gershon) wants him in her bedroom, and also for a reality-based soaper. But Cory keeps making goo-goo eyes at a school-of-Britney pop star (a beautifully dizzy Alison Lohman) whom he keeps sighting in the New York night. She’s been hurt by her snarky boyfriend, and she’s ready for puppy love. The two of them connect, at the moment of her new (hilariously feeble) rock video, “Take Your Love and Shove It,” and as Cory too achieves soap stardom.
Near the end, Delirious threatens to fall apart and into some stupid, unmotivated, sub-Scorsese melodrama. Instead, it concludes wisely and calmly, with an acknowledgment that even the most jaded of us can feel a tingle in the shiny presence of celebrity and fame. Who can’t share Cory’s dopy amazement when he’s allowed into a roped-off VIP lounge, an initiate floating past Heaven’s pearly gate?
A dance piece inspired by a documentary? At the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, Maine, this summer, I saw a smashing performance of David Dorfman’s underground, an hour dance drama of Jets-and-Sharks kinetic intensity that was inspired by choreographer Dorfman’s seeing the 2002 film The Weather Underground. Dorfman was so taken with the documentary saga of the 1970s anti-war revolutionists that he built a dance around the question of whether there are times when violence is the appropriate response.
Underground was a consciousness-raising hit at Bates. I talked to Dorfman after the performance. He’d love to repeat it in political-minded Boston, if someone can offer him a venue.