It must have been vexing for the inventive French director Michel Gondry when critics like me reviewed the surreal sci-fi screwball romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as if it were un film de Charlie Kaufman. As if to prove that Eternal Sunshine did not spring fully formed from the brow of its Oscar-winning screenwriter, Gondry has both directed and written his own ambitious, Kaufman-esque (sorry) dream romance, The Science of Sleep. He nearly pulls it off, too. The semi-autobiographical story of a solipsistic young artist who hovers on the border between his conscious and unconscious lives, the movie is yeasty stuff: Gondry has devised a loopy and original language for portraying a soul in ferment.
That soul, Stéphane, is embodied by Gael García Bernal, the Mexican dreamboat with the thick, pouty lips and dark eyes that can flash with enraged entitlement—and who looks to replace the aging Johnny Depp as the favorite alter ego of tortured filmmakers. (How does Gondry finesse his leading man’s lousy French accent in a film set in Paris? There was a Mexican dad!) Stéphane has his own TV show—at least, he has one in his dreams, where he’s an effusive, Beatle-banged host who presides over a set that’s partly composed of splattery spin art, and where people from his waking life pop up in windows that double as TV screens. Leaping out of those windows, he doesn’t fly; he swims, enchanted, over vast paper cityscapes. And sometimes he passes into the real world, where he blurts things out that most of us keep to ourselves.
For Stéphane, the external world is too disheartening, the internal world too lonely. Like many an alienated artist, he sets out to merge the two. He might even have found, in a flat across from the hall from his mother’s, a woman with a similar urge to merge. Her name is Stéphanie—a clue that she’s his soul mate right there—and she’s played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the half-French, half-English actress with the jaw suitable for spearfishing: gorgeous from some angles, Modigliani-esque from others. Stéphane can’t quite make up his conscious mind about Stéphanie. At first, he prefers her more conventionally pretty friend, Zoe (Emma de Caunes). But something about Stéphanie gets him where he lives—wherever that is.
In the most magical sections of The Science of Sleep, Stéphane fumbles to build a bridge from his world to Stéphanie’s. I’ve never seen anything like the scene in which he introduces a time machine that can leap a second back or ahead: He goes back and back and back in a way that evokes a would-be lover’s hesitation over making that first move. Then he jumps a second ahead, to the lip-lock he hopes will be just around the time bend. After a while, it becomes difficult to know whether Stéphane is asleep, awake, or in some kind of fugue state. To enjoy the movie, you have to throw away your inner clock and compass. Narcolepsy is the new existentialism.
The Science of Sleep transports you, but it strands you, too. Apart from the time-machine bit and two or three other daft exchanges, Gondry’s scenes tend to circle around the same drain: the hero’s insufferable narcissism. And when the movie has a chance to lift off into the stratosphere—when Stéphane falls asleep with the phone on his chest, determined to keep talking to Stéphanie from inside his dreamworld—Gondry abruptly lets the air out of the whole conceit. The hero emerges as just another jealous, overmothered, self-pitying asshole—a bad bet. Gondry must think that the movie’s dark, realistic, unresolved finish is a mark of his integrity. But in the great madcap love stories (among them Eternal Sunshine), the magic carpet flies over the abyss: You get a great view, but you don’t take the plunge. Gondry loses faith in his carpet—which is to say, his own artistry. He drops you like a stone.
As Willie Stark, the Louisiana demagogue inspired by Huey Long in the new adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Sean Penn demonstrates how a great Method actor can make the world’s most unconvincing rabble-rouser. A diligent county treasurer, Willie has been campaigning for governor by trying to elucidate the state’s financial irregularities to small groups of hicks, who stare at him vacantly. But when he finds out that he has been set up, lured into the race in order to split the hick vote and throw the election to the big-city candidate, Willie tosses away his prepared text and finds his true voice. He tells the hicks that he’s a hick, too, and that hicks have to stand up for themselves because no one else will. And sensing that something momentous is happening, the people begin to stream toward Willie, climbing the fences to get a better view, their smudged faces upturned. And all I could think was, How can they hear a fucking word? It’s not the Louisiana accent. (Presumably that wouldn’t be an obstacle to Louisianans.) It’s that Penn is never happier than when he can mumble and brood and get all inward. He doesn’t give himself to the words and let them carry him along; he adds beats and half-beats to show you how hard he’s thinking. Even when he shouts and gets off good, lusty line readings, the speech doesn’t build and take hold of you. Halfway through, the director, Steve Zaillian, cuts to Willie in different settings—a swamp, a park, a main street—to show how the candidate has taken his message to the road, and for some reason the composer, James Horner, scores the speech with elegiac, cradle-of-democracy strings that quiver and swell. By the time the sequence ended, I thought I’d seen five of the stupidest minutes in an American movie since Lady in the Water.