There’s an old folk tale I heard a lot back in Hebrew school. In the little village of Chelm, a poor farmer goes to see the rabbi to complain that his house is far too small to accommodate himself, his wife, and their children. The rabbi tells the farmer to take all his chickens from out of their coop and move them into the house. A week later, the farmer returns complaining that his home is more cramped and noisy than ever. The rabbi tells him to now also bring his goat indoors. Things keep getting worse week after week, as the rabbi tells him to also bring in his horse and his cow. Finally, the rabbi tells the farmer to move all the animals back outside to where he usually keeps them. The farmer does this, then sees the rabbi one last time to rave about how spacious and peaceful his house feels now.
I thought about the rabbi of Chelm a lot while trudging my way through I Know This Much Is True, HBO’s six-part adaptation of Wally Lamb’s 1998 bestselling, Oprah-endorsed novel. The limited series, in which Mark Ruffalo plays twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey — the former full of barely-contained rage over a disastrous life, the latter a paranoid schizophrenic — is so relentlessly, almost proudly, miserable at every possible turn that, after a while, I began looking at the project as an unexpected form of public service. Hard as it was to get through each hour — let alone the 79-minute finale — I would depart its world each time and feel a little bit better about the current state of my own life. And that’s in the middle of a pandemic quarantine!
I’ve obviously been very lucky during this crisis, whereas I Know This Much Is True has the unfortunate timing to come along in a moment when viewers likely have little to no appetite for additional suffering, even the fictional kind. But it’s hard to imagine this grim wallow — which mistakenly views trauma and drama as interchangeable — playing that much better even in a time of overwhelming peace and prosperity.
The story, set in the early Nineties, opens in a very dark place, as Thomas marches into a library in his Connecticut hometown, produces a large knife, and proceeds to amputate his own hand, while horrified patrons (many of them children) sprint for the exits. Thomas will soon explain to Dominick that God told him to mutilate himself as a protest against the impending Persian Gulf conflict, but in the process gets himself reassigned from a nurturing facility to a high-security mental hospital where he’s mistreated in multiple ways.
It gets sadder from there, people.
The miniseries moves backwards through time, tracing not only the history of the twins — played as grade schoolers by Donnie and Rocco Masihi, and in college by Philip Ettinger — but that of their mother Concettina (Melissa Leo), their cruel stepfather Ray (John Procaccino), Dominick’s ex-wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), and even the boys’ Italian immigrant grandfather Domenico (Marcello Fonte). Across the generations, terrible patterns repeat themselves: mental illness, one sibling who views another as a burden, and abuse committed both actively and unwittingly. During the flashbacks to Domenico’s arrival in America(*), he comes to believe the family is cursed. But we get plenty of evidence that a combination of nature and nurture is doing all the hard work, rather than a witch’s incantation. The story is presented largely from Dominick’s point of view, with Thomas as an unwitting bogeyman figure whose problems have haunted his brother’s entire life. Yet the adult Dominick we spend most of our time with is so primed to explode at any moment that it feels more stressful than a version primarily about Thomas might. (As Dessa puts it at one point, “You sure know how to clear a room.”)
(*) Those scenes play out almost entirely in subtitled Italian, right as My Brilliant Friend is wrapping up its second season.
The sheer number of tragic things that happen to Dominick, Thomas, and their loved ones is at first bracing, then numbing, and eventually achieves self-parody. There’s a scene where contractor Dominick is painting a customer’s home and two awful events unfold in rapid succession, and all I could do was laugh. I didn’t feel good about it, but that’s how it felt.
The whole thing reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mom, after she saw a critically-acclaimed film with an all-star cast, which I hadn’t gotten around to yet because it sounded depressing. I asked her how it was. She paused for a very long time, searched for something nice to say, and finally said, “There was a lot of acting in it. It was… it was mostly about acting.”
I Know This Much Is True is mostly about acting, too. It happens to be very good, often great acting. Ruffalo is as intense as both roles demand, and finds completely different physicalities for each brother, so that you’d be able to tell them apart even if Dominick didn’t have a goatee and Thomas wasn’t a bit heavier (and, eventually, one-handed). Hahn (making a big tonal shift from her last HBO project, the middle-aged sex comedy Mrs. Fletcher) continues her streak of never being less than utterly compelling, and Rob Huebel is tremendous and understated as Leo, an aspiring actor who understandably can’t believe all the wild things that keep happening to his best friend Dominick. As Thomas’ seemingly gruff but extremely compassionate social worker Lisa, Rosie O’Donnell may never have given a better performance. And Procaccino (A Most Violent Year) continually finds ways to make Ray seem like a very human and understandable monster, if not a sympathetic one.
The movie my mom saw won an Oscar for one of its stars; if Ruffalo gets an Emmy for this, then mission accomplished. But awards bait doesn’t have to be quite this punishing.
I haven’t read Lamb’s book, and thus can’t speak to the choices writer/director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) made in adapting it, but it’s a brutal experience. Early on, Dominick asks an Italian linguistics expert, Nedra (Juliette Lewis, giving a performance big enough to fill the Grand Canyon), to translate Domenico’s memoir into English as a gift for his dying mother. When he finally gets a chance to look at it, he’s so disgusted by the insight into his family history that he doesn’t want to read anymore, until his therapist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi), suggests he might learn something about himself if he keeps reading. The hope with reading or watching any sad story is that you achieve a similar level of insight to justify the difficult journey. I Know This Much Is True does eventually offer a glimmer of insight, and hope, to its characters, just not nearly enough to compensate for all the suffering that’s come before.
I Know This Much Is True premieres May 10th on HBO. I’ve seen all six episodes.