Since the infancy of cinema, filmmakers have tried to employ it to emulate the fractured, off-kilter quality of feverish dreams and nightmares, and of states of psychological disorientation–one need only think of “The Cabinet of Caligari.” But most efforts along such lines have been dismal failures–even Hitchcock’s attempts in “Spellbound” fell flat–and that’s certainly the case with Marc Forster’s new picture, a woozy, pretentious would-be thriller that aims to be mind-bending but instead is patience-trying.
“Stay” starts with Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), a New York City psychiatrist, being visited by Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a troubled art student whom he’s taken on as a patient after the fellow’s former shrink, Dr. Beth Levy (Janeane Garofalo) is laid up with some odd nervous ailment. Sam becomes fascinated with Henry, especially after the young man announces that he’s going to do himself in at midnight on Saturday night on the Brooklyn Bridge. His concern spills over into his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), also an artist, but one whom Sam has apparently saved from suicide and taken under his wing, intending to marry her. It also involves his friend and mentor, the blind Dr. Patterson (Bob Hoskins). And as the narrative spins on, it includes such twists as Sam’s not only seeing but conversing with dead people (specifically Henry’s mother, played by Kate Burton) and his searching out a waitress named Athena (Elizabeth Reaser) whom the young man ostensibly had a crush on. Another episode shows Henry not only taking Dr. Patterson for his dead father but curing him of his affliction. And then there’s the fact that events seem to repeat themselves and the same incidental characters keep showing up over and over again, though in slightly altered circumstances. And there’s also mention of a famous artist, idolized by Letham, who destroyed all his work before killing himself on the grounds that self-destruction was the most perfect form of expression possible.
This morass of peculiarities only begins to suggest the general oddity that Forster tries to fashion out of every conceivable cinematic device. Some of them are just costuming quirks–like Dr. Foster’s habit of wearing trousers a couple of sizes too short for his legs, presumably in order to show that he neglects to wear socks with his dress shoes. (Yeah, strange! But unsettling?) Most, though, are standard film school stuff–twisted camera angles, skewed shots, weird visual transitions, repetitions of dialogue and situations, flashy tracking and the like. Presumably the intention is to keep the viewer unsteady and in a state of perpetual uncertainty about what’s going on, and to a certain extent the flamboyant technique is successful in doing that. But after awhile, as the non-sequiturs pile up, the narrative, directorial and photographic extravagances seem more and more like empty gestures, more revealing of a sophomoric cleverness than of any deeper meaning. Theoretically the picture could recoup and make the effort to assimilate the images and words worthwhile if the payoff–the big revelation at the close–came as a shocking surprise, a bolt of enlightenment. But all that screenwriter Benioff has come up with is a banal trick familiar from lots of short stories, novels and previous films. (It’s really no more profound than the ending of “The Wizard of Oz.”) And as constructed here, it seems like rather a cheat, since when it comes, it makes what’s preceded seem a tale told from entirely the wrong perspective.
Actors usually sign on for projects like this because they seem “interesting”–which they may be on the printed page–but invariably they make the cast look bad. In this case McGregor appears genuinely lost–which may be the idea, but doesn’t make Sam a very compelling character. Gosling does better, but his tormented post-teen shtick is getting a bit old. (Maybe it’s time for “The Notebook 2.”) Watts is wasted, being given little to do but scowl and pose, while Hoskins overacts even in a passive secondary part like the one he has here. As for the rest, Garofalo stands out for her platinum-blonde wig, B.D. Wong, as an impassive physician, for his cute little goatee, and Burton for her nifty towel-around-the-head getup. Roberto Schaeffer’s cinematography is better than the use to which it’s put.
Maybe some people will enjoy trying to get their brains around this movie, but in the end the result proves not worth the trouble. And most people who go to see “Stay” will certainly feel the urge to ignore the title and leave ASAP–no doubt grumbling angrily as they rush up the aisle.