Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sad Sack Double Feature [Science of Sleep & Lonesome Jim

Let's get rid of some excess baggage shall we?

The Science of Sleep
Dir. - Michel Gondry

Viewed: On the Couch

Sean gets the ball rolling:

If you check out Michel Gondry’s addition to the Director’s Series DVDs, and you should, what you’re going to come away with is his sense of playfulness. Especially when compared to some of the other entries in that series. And one of my favorite bits on that DVD is the little random home movie one that pops up of him banging on his little drum set and playing with his kid. So when one of the first images that pops up in the uniquely resonant and bittersweet The Science of Sleep is Gael Garcia Bernal playfully pounding on what looks to be the same exact drum set, the movie automatically feels like Gondry is getting a bit personal here.

The effect this movie had on me is hard to describe. In fact, three days after watching it I’m still digesting it. If you were to approach this movie having only seen the TV ads and a fond memory of Eternal Sunshine you’ll probably be taken a bit off-guard. Let’s just say it gets a bit dark in here. And if you’re familiar with Gondry’s work with writer Charlie Kaufman you might come away surprised to think that Kaufman might be the more linear storyteller of the two. So go in with an open mind that The Science of Sleep is going to take you down a twisted path that might not have a light at the end of its tunnel.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a young man who ends up living back in his old childhood bedroom and working at an undesirable position in a promotional calendar shop which he got through his mother who really isn’t around much of the time. Stephane would rather be wowing the world around him with his own works of art and even thinks of himself as an inventor. But seeing as Stephane doesn’t have very good people skills, his mother probably gave him his old room and this job so he wouldn’t end up broke and homeless – a starving artist.

You see, Stephane spends most of his days in a dream world. Sometimes this is known as Stephane TV, complete with a cardboard set and matching cardboard television camera. It’s here where he bangs out his theme song on the drum set and piano and gives us commentary on his life. What at first seems like a fun and creative place to be, Stephane TV later turns into a kind of sad shelter – and one that’s slowly being chipped away at. Other times it’s a cave on a hillside where creatures of his invention do his bidding and life can seem utopian. The problems start when these worlds begin to blend in with reality. Or vice versa. And this starts to occur when we meet his neighbor Stephanie, played by the pitch perfect Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Stephanie and her friend Zoë quickly pick up on Stephane’s childlike naiveté, but Stephanie is soon won over by his endless creativity and romantic notions – and in the movie’s best scene she’s even able to get swept up into Stephane’s dream world and make cotton clouds float in her apartment and cellophane flow from the faucet. But these moments are always short lived due to the fact that if Stephane were raised by American parents he’d probably be medicated six ways to Sunday. Paranoia and mood swings soon rear their ugly head and Stephanie can’t be sure if this guy isn’t perhaps a bit dangerous. Can these crazy kids work it out? Are they the soul mates Stephane thinks they are or just the friends and neighbors that Stephanie maybe thinks is best?

Other reviews have suggested, and it’s even touched upon in the interviews in the bonus material of the DVD, that perhaps this is just a one-way love story since the majority of the romance happens purely in Stephane’s head. But for me, just because it isn’t the kind of love story or romance you’ll find in the next Drew Barrymore movie (actually there’s more than a couple similarities to be found in her movie Mad Love) doesn’t make it one sided., and the last moments of this movie strike me as perfect proof that it isn’t one-way at all. I really love Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance in this and she really makes this movie resonate and turn out to be as touching as it is. In Hollywood’s hands she would have been another Manic Pixie Dream Girl and we’d be looking at Garden State meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

So I’ve probably gone on a little too long here – what says you, Padraic?

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Padraic Says:

I also had a difficult time figuring out what the effect of this movie was on me; that was until I realized that it had almost none. I’ve waited three weeks, rather than three days, to review this, and the reason is simply that I couldn’t figure out what to say. Did I like the movie? Sure, I guess, it wasn’t offensive, had a light touch that kept you engaged, and featured nice performances from the two leads. Did I dislike the movie? No, not really, though I think I made two trips to the fridge and only paused because of professional duty. If I wasn’t supposed to write a review, I think I would have let the movie run.

It’s not bad, but at times, certainly boring. The Science of Sleep is a brilliant realization of what is likely going on in Gondry’s mind, but as I got further into the movie, I realized that what was in Gondry’s mind wasn’t particularly interesting. As a recent New York Review of Books article about the magical realist writer Haruki Murakami put it, sometimes surrealism is just of way of “making people interesting.” Behind the stop-motion animation horses and the floating clouds, there is only a love story, and a fairly dull one at that. Unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which turned a conventional story—love, love lost, and love found between two average schlumps—into a beautiful meditation on ephemeral love and memory, Science takes two very odd people, puts them in a very odd situation, with very odd lives, and then gives an odd telling of their story. I am sure these kinds of love stories do exist, but love as portrayed by Gondry in this film seems nothing like any love I’ve known (though, unfortunately, this does mean I identify more with Jim Carrey than Bernal!).

If you move beyond the central theme—the relationship between dreams and love; or as Stephane’s boorish stepfather says, “Love extrapolates your REM”—then Gondry’s strength as a director become more evident. The visuals are stunning and at times, you do feel caught up in Stephane’s fractured life. In particular, the movie’s multiple languages help create a “real” world that is scarcely more comprehensible than dreams. For both Stephane and Stephanie, in fact, the world of dreams and creativity is much easier to navigate than the real world of responsibility, and I am sure there will be people who wish they could just escape life like the main characters. If the movie made a stronger case for escapism, I could see writing a polemic about how this kind of delusion is ultimately self-defeating; that a failure to face up to the responsibilities of being a real person in this real world is a cowardly posture that helps to create such a drab existence; that it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to explore this world, and that ultimately, our deepest existential fears are overcome through confronting the world rather than escaping it…but…well, I can’t even get that worked up.

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Sean sums it up:

Man, I don’t even remember what I wrote up there… I don’t agree with your “two very odd people” thing. What’s odd about Stephanie? And for that matter, how odd is it to have a wildly imaginative person be unable to articulate his feelings properly in the “real” world. The city made out of toilet paper rolls and the jazz band made of guys in cat suits may make the movie a bit lass accessible or relatable than it should be. These characters aren’t very odd to me and I might agree with you more about your other thoughts about the movie if it weren’t for the final scene which still sticks with me.

Eternal Sunshine and Science of Sleep are my version of the perfect date movie; I like to think of them as the anti-date movies. Of course Gondry isn’t going to match Charlie Kaufman’s writing skills – who can? But both are able to combine being claustrophobically personal while creating brand new worlds that keep the viewer at arms length. This one is definitely a bit more of a downer but I really appreciate it’s small scope and homemade qualities.



Next Up:

Lonesome Jim
Dir - Steve Buscemi

Viewed: On the Couch

Take it away Paddy:

I’ll admit it. I have a soft spot for the twenty/thirty-something slacker movie. This is the genre where the protagonist with the untucked shirt and scruffy beard (almost always a guy) wakes up one day (usually hung over) to realize that high school and college were a long time ago but that he won’t be taking out a mortgage any time soon. Somehow, somewhere along the way, everyone else—the “real people”—managed to sort it out, but the heroes of the slacker movie have to make their own lives, without relying on past conventions. For my generation, this kind of movie began with Richard Linklater, found it absurdist phase in Bottle Rocket, and continues in well-crafted movies indie movies like Old Joy. Unfortunately, the popularity of this genre has produced a hideous irony: the formulaic outsider movie.

And so it is no surprise to see Lonesome Jim, a movie that with a few changes in geography and tone could easily be mistaken for Garden State. Jim (Casey Affleck), a self-described “writer” (though the only time we see him actually writing is while watching some soft-core pornography), returns home to Indiana after a miserable stint as a dog walker in New York City. His parents are, of course, creepy, and he quickly falls back into a routine of television and bars. He meets the obligatory weird guy with pot (played by the excellent Mark Boone Junior), the pretty, sensitive girl who somehow is both single and interested in easy sex after one drink (a tolerable Liv Tyler), and, well, depression ensues.

The reason we know that Jim is depressed because he says things like “I’m really miserable,” “can you be happy doing anything?” and has on his wall pictures of authors who committed suicide. His depression causes him to tell his brother that he should kill himself, which leads to his brother nearly dying in a car “accident”, and eventually, somewhat, to Jim’s realization that he should change his life.

So, near the end of the movie, we get Jim’s version of standing on a bus in a dump, when he delivers an Existentialist speech to a girl’s basketball team that has yet to score all season. He tells them that the game is likely meaningless, and that little good will come from it, but that they should endure anyway. The past does not necessarily determine the present, so why not try? In case you didn’t guess, the basketball game is a metaphor for life, and the kids do score, but ultimately, like in life, die (kidding). Jim takes his own advice and eventually changes his life to pursue the girl. It’s tempting to criticize this easy out, but dropping everything to chase the girl is one of those movie clichés that is true.

What makes Lonesome Jim so disappointing is that Steve Buschemi’s first directorial effort, Trees Lounge, was such an honest and original portrayal of lower middle-class depression. There was no cute girl to make things better, no evocative harmonica and guitar score to impart meaning, no quirky scooter to liven things up, nor even any hope of escape. There were moments of joy and maybe a possibility of real change, but the deck was heavily stacked against Tommy ever making it out of the Trees. In Jim, however, you know from the first scene that things will work out.

Tellingly, Buschemi also wrote and starred in Trees and it’s possible that he has more hope for the Generation X/Y loser than the mid-life barfly. It’s also possible that Buschemi and screenwriter James Strouse (who’s first directorial effort, Grace is Gone, won the Sundance Audience and Screenwriting Awards this year) have no idea what life is like for the sad sack generation, and so choose to talk about depression without actually depicting anything. I mean, why go through all the trouble of developing a real character who is tormented by life’s seeming pointlessness when you can just throw a picture of Richard Yates up on the wall and call it a day?

Well, Sean, since you are on the wrong side of 30, does it just get worse?

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Sean Says,

Of course life gets better, Padraic. Are you trying to say that you haven’t returned home, found your dream girl (with or without precocious preteen), learned to love life and find your true path? You best hurry up on that, time’s running out for you. It helps a lot if your hometown is some quaint suburban or back woodsy place. Because we all know the city is nothing but a soul crushing place where good people either get corrupted or turned into robots and people like Liv Tyler’s Anika do not exist. I don’t know what one’s supposed to do if your hometown is a city – might as well park your car on the train tracks then.

Yeah, I’m in agreement with you on this one. I too am a big fan of Tree’s Lounge, and I even liked Animal Factory (Buscemi also directed my favorite episode of The Sopranos), so I remember being a bit excited about this one when it came to the Boston Independent Film Festival a couple years back. It didn’t get a great reception when it first got released but I’d read enough positive words to still hold out hope for something good to come out of it. But there’s really nothing new going on here.

This story goes back to The Graduate. And in the nearly 40 years since that movie, I can’t think of many movies that have done much to try and change that template. Certainly not Lonesome Jim. But I kept thinking that changing the two lead actors might have helped – Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler are in some sort of competition to bore the crap out me in this movie. I understand Jim is supposed to be depressed and unresponsive and all that but you need someone with a little more going on behind the eyes for this role. I’m guessing that by having the names Affleck and Tyler on board the movie got some producers on board. But I can’t tell you how tired I am of Liv Tyler’s Anika character popping up in these kinds of movies (see the Manic Pixie Dream Girl link in the Science of Sleep review). Granted, she isn’t as ridiculous or unrealistic as Natalie Portman’s in Garden State – but well, yeah, she’s still completely unrealistic and unmotivated as a character. Also, I in no way need my lead characters in a movie to be “likable” but they at least need some sort of charisma or having something about them that comes across as genuine.

While I don’t think the majority of this movie’s problems lie with the screenplay – I do think the recurring of this type of Anika character is the result of lazy writing. I have a feeling that this story could have made an okay short story and lines like “I thought you never ran” might have a better ring to them. I am interested in Strouse’s future because there was some honestly good dialogue in this even though the story was pretty weak. But a weak story can get some life by strong performances and even though the supporting cast was up to the challenge (it’s always fun to watch Tree’s Lounge vet Mark Boone Junior in anything), Jim and Anika couldn’t have been duller.

I will add that I did enjoy Lonesome Jim much more than Garden State. I’ve yet to watch Elizabethtown so I can’t quite compare it to that – but as for stories about a dude getting taught his life lesson through a single mom and her precocious youngster, I can say I enjoyed it just about as much as Jerry Maguire.

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Paddy's Coda:

Nice review Sean, but please never mention Animal Factory again. I must have blocked that movie from my memory; the main plot line concerns whether or not Edward Furlong will be anally raped by William Defoe. It was one of the worst movies I’d seen in a while, so maybe Buschemi hit his peak with Trees.

I agree that the direction as well as the staid leads contribute to the overwhelming dullness of the movie, but I’m more skeptical than you of the screenwriter Strouse (and a victory at Sundance will do nothing to ease my concern). The problem was the use of cliché and shortcuts. I’m sure Strouse did experience something like this in his life, but the way the movie is structured is just so false that I can’t help thinking its narrative is shaped much more by (bad) books and other movies then by a genuine life experience. This is a very pernicious tendancy, when not only do poor movies distort your actual experience of the world, but even your recollection of life events. What you end up with then is sort of a Hollywood adaptation of a life experience that itself is recalled in Hollywood categories. The worst part is not so much that you get crappy movies like Lonesome Jim, but that Strouse actually thinks his life was like that. Most movies, of course, reduce the complexities of life to catchy life lessons, but Jim is so pat—so damn obvious—that I’m sensing young Strouse is more Paul Haggis than his hero Ernest Hemmingway.

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