fb-pixel
TELEVISION REVIEW

An orgy of misery in ‘I Know This Much Is True’

Mark Ruffalo plays troubled twins Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in the HBO miniseries "I Know This Much Is True."
Mark Ruffalo plays troubled twins Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in the HBO miniseries "I Know This Much Is True."Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

Recently, musing about his pandemic TV viewing, Governor Charlie Baker said, “I could only watch a few episodes of ‘Ozark’ before I decided that if I kept watching, I was going to have to jump off the roof of my house.” OK, so let’s keep the miniseries adaptation of Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel “I Know This Much Is True” very, very far away from our very tall leader, OK?

I’ll put it this way. There are heavy stories, and there are heavy stories that make you feel like your ankle is chained to a safe that’s sinking to the bottom of a dark, fathomless ocean.

Advertisement



And then there’s “I Know This Much Is True,” which is ceaselessly, back-breakingly heavy enough to throw you out of alignment for a good long time. I’ve been pondering comparisons to HBO’s new six-parter, and Thomas Hardy jumped to mind first — you know, the author of novels such as “Jude the Obscure,” whose long string of misfortunes includes one little child murdering his two half-siblings and killing himself. “I Know This Much Is True” is like a Hardy story, as the rigor of social acceptability leaves a trail of damaged souls in its wake, but with cool special effects, a pet monkey, and Kalinda (that’s Archie Panjabi from “The Good Wife”).

Starring Mark Ruffalo as troubled twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, the miniseries, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., is certainly ambitious, as it digs deep on a number of profound issues, including unhealthy familial bonds, cross-generational trauma, schizophrenia, toxic masculinity, and PTSD. Dominick is an unhappy house painter with anger problems, and he also carries the burden of caring for the schizophrenic Thomas, who, early in the story, enters a public library and cuts his hand off as a sacrifice to God. Their mother, played by Melissa Leo, dies refusing to tell her sons who their father is, leaving Dominick more agitated than ever. He’s clearly still in love with his ex, Kathryn Hahn’s Dessa, but he’s in the middle of an unsatisfying romance with another woman, Imogen Poots’s Joy.

Advertisement



The ambition extends to the acting, with Ruffalo working overtime to give us two distinct characters. As Dominick, he’s embittered but averse to expressing himself directly — which never goes well. When Dominick’s resentment of his stepfather, Ray (John Procaccino), finally surfaces after decades of repression, it’s a monsoon. Ruffalo gained 30 pounds to play Thomas (the production halted for six weeks so he could pig out), and he truly looks like a separate but related person. When Thomas goes on his paranoid rants, it’s hauntingly effective. And when the two Ruffalos appear together in a scene, it’s remarkably natural. In the supporting cast, Rosie O’Donnell is a standout, both thick-skinned and devoted as Thomas’s social worker. Also, Juliette Lewis is a twisted kick as a woman Dominick hires to translate his grandfather’s memoir from the Italian.

But “I Know This Much Is True” misses the mark in terms of storytelling. It just sits there, a roiling mass of misery that fails to provide you with a compelling reason to keep watching. There’s no forward thrust, no clearly unfolding evolutions of character, no driving mystery underpinning everything — the kind of propulsion needed in a movie if not necessarily in a novel. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance of “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” the miniseries needs to build more clearly. When the somewhat redemptive final act arrives, it’s relatively sudden and unearned, unless I missed the parts where Dominick grapples with the fatal mistakes he has made. Also, a number of important characters, including those played by Poots and Leo, are seriously undeveloped, sidelined, perhaps, to highlight more of the brothers’ suffering.

Advertisement



I generally value dark-darker-darkest stories. At their best, they’re honest about important aspects of human nature and ask questions about moral bearing. I’d rather not pretend that bad things don’t exist. If the Birdsey brothers’ grandpa doesn’t dive into the river to save the pet monkey, I’m cool with that. But I was frustrated with the static approach to darkness in “I Know This Much Is True.” Another HBO miniseries, “Sharp Objects,” was relentlessly grim, too, but it was impelled not only by the whodunit material but by the incrementally dawning self-awareness and empowerment by Amy Adams’s lead character. “I Know This Much Is True” is raw and unsettling and, alas, deadlocked.

I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Rosie O’Donnell, Archie Panjabi, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, Melissa Leo, Imogen Poots, John Procaccino

On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.