Wake-up Fall

Photo: Etienne George/Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures

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.

Sean Penn, man of the people, in All the King's Men.Photo: Photo: Kerry Hayes/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Warren reimagined the story of Long as a morality play in which a weak man, a journalist from a wealthy family, becomes an adjunct to an overweening political boss and watches or assists in the destruction of everything he loves: a father figure, a best friend, a true love. Even though it became the template for a lot of finger-wagging parables in the forties and fifties, the Oscar-winning movie, directed by Robert Rossen, had the right mixture of toniness and pulp (along with Broderick Crawford’s putty face and the ultimate Mercedes McCambridge performance—with a radioactive chip on her shoulder).

Did we need a new All the King’s Men? There has been a lot of talk about dictatorship and demagoguery and a culture of corruption—and James Carville has lent his name to the remake (as an executive producer) to suggest the story has something urgent to say now. But damned if I know what that is, because Zaillian worries the life out of the thing. He lingers dewily over the banal romance while barely dramatizing the political machinations, so that Penn’s Stark doesn’t seem like a threat to much of anything except the Actor’s Studio. Next to our current administration, Willie & Co. are models of competence and straight talk.

All the King’s Men has been miscast virtually from top to bottom, with especially painful work from Jude Law (pretty, limp), James Gandolfini (no threat to Streep in the accent department), and Kate Winslet (bathed in ghostly white light to symbolize lost love). Jackie Earle Haley makes an amusing skeletal goon and Kathy Baker is the picture of pickled elegance, but the only performer I enjoyed watching was Anthony Hopkins, who loses his Louisiana accent midway through and becomes the living incarnation of Richard Burton in his cups. No Method mumbling here—just good old demagogic ham.

There is far more demagoguery on display in Jesus Camp, a frightening, infuriating, yet profoundly compassionate documentary about the indoctrination of children by the Evangelical right. The directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, bring the same rapt attention to the faces of little Christian campers that they brought to the subjects of their wrenching The Boys of Baraka. Except that these impressionable children are “saved” by being bombarded with the rhetoric of holy war and commanded to blow up that wall between church and state. Although the film tracks several kids—among them the adorable, snub-nosed Rachael and the dapper budding evangelist Levi—its dark heart is preacher Becky Fischer, who tells children that in the Old Testament a warlock like Harry Potter “would have been put to death.” Oh, sure, she believes in democracy, she says to Air America host Mike Papantonio, but “we can’t give everyone equal freedom because that’s going to destroy us.” Jesus Camp makes the best case imaginable for atheism.

The vital, endangered Air America can be heard on the car radio in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy—its gloomy commentaries adding to the ineffable dread that pervades the movie, an allusive and haunting meditation on the passing of a friendship. Two longtime buddies, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), head off on what will probably be their final camping trip in the Pacific Northwest—Mark’s wife is about to have a baby, while Kurt is slipping into drug dependency and homelessness. Against a radiant backdrop of decay and rebirth, nothing needs to be said; everything in this lovely film is crystalline.

In conjunction with The Science of Sleep, Deitch Projects is staging a show of “sculpture and pathological creepy little gifts” featured in the film—including odd stuffed animals by Lauri Faggioni that Gondry animated. RISD grad Baptiste Ibar, who painted the film’s disaster-inspired calendars, told the Los Angeles Times that what unites everyone’s work in the show is “the attraction to a naïve feeling, the handmade aspect that Michel is really after.”

The Science of Sleep
Directed by Michel Gondry. Warner Independent Pictures. R.

All the King’s Men
Directed by Steven Zaillian. Sony. PG-13.

Jesus Camp
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Magnolia Pictures. PG-13.

Old Joy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Kino Pictures. Not rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Wake-up Fall