The Sleepless Movie Review
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Written and directed by Mike Figgis
97 Minutes
Rated R for drug use, sexuality, language and a scene of violence.

James Berardinelli wrote a review of this film so incisive, so perfectly encapsulating its failures that I wonder why anyone else bothered reviewing the film at all. He says this film is destined for classrooms, to be studied by film students, and I believe him. After all, that's where I saw it. So why am I reviewing it if he already nailed it?

Because I hate this fucking movie.

I will credit it this: its conceit of having four different screens going simultaneously is handled very well; Figgis smartly uses the audio track to shift audience focus between them by adjusting the levels of the individual scenes. The fact that it was all shot totally synchronously is suggestive of the kind of video voodoo that Michel Gondry is so adept at, at least when you see characters move between the screens and focuses change.

Of course, if your conceit is a terrible one, then saying you handled it admirably is a back-handed compliment. Though I guess if you're going to do something stupid, you may as well do it as stupidly as you can. If you're going to compete in a shit-eating contest, you might as well eat as much shit as you possibly can. And Figgis is apparently so proud of his conceit that he has to detail it in a title at the end of the film. He doesn't come across as being particularly smug or self-centered in his interview in the special features, but that's the only explanation I've got for boldfacing and underlining something we already fucking knew from having watched the damn thing.

While I generally abhor experimental film, I believe that true experimental film does fulfill one important purpose: to make sure something has been done so some other asshole doesn't try to do it again. So while I hated watching a fifteen minute film of a pair of hands untangling fishing line, there's at least some solace in knowing that no one will ever do that again. And before anyone remarks on how every modern filmic technique was experimental at one point in time, I suggest this: it doesn't take the perspective of a century of film for me to know that Eisenstein's use of montage clearly had practical and far-reaching applications. Montage is a key element of filmmaking today, but I seriously doubt film a hundred years from now is going to be four irritating one-take screens.

That the film is largely improvised around key events occurring within it is both its blessing and its curse. Talented improvisational actors are given room to breathe and come up with some dynamite material (Steven Weber, in particular, is a hoot). But the less talented ones wind up basically sucking a fat one for the ninety minute running time. Kyle Maclachlan is a terrific actor, but improv is not his game, and it shows glaringly here. Likewise, just about everything involving Saffron Burrows is mind-numbingly dull.

Now when I saw the name "Julian Sands" in the opening credits, I knew to prepare for the worst. Julian Sands is a pretty damn good actor, and a lot of fun to watch, but his taste in roles is so wretched, so unspeakably awful, that his presence in the credits of a film is basically like a cinematic biohazard symbol. The presence of Julian Sands serves as a warning to the viewer: this movie is going to suck. So while he was pretty funny here, the movie that surrounded him was miserable.

There was potential for this film to work at the very least on the level of an interesting curiosity instead of the aggravating borefest it winds up being, and Figgis made three grievous miscalculations that sank this.

The first is in his casting. Knowing that he was gunning for a comedy, the smarter call might have been to cast comedians or at least funny actors. Not necessarily comic actors, but actors who are capable of being funny. While Stellan Skarsgard is a fantastic actor, he's not exactly the first name that springs to mind when I think of "funny." Salma Hayek and Steven Weber were smart choices here, but the rest of his cast largely fails.

The second is in his "script." The shoestring plotline he has devised for his film purely and simply sucks. It's awful. It's mediocre, B-grade material, and the sudden turn to violence that takes place at the end of the film is not only jarring and out of place, but suggests a creative bankruptcy: having written himself into a corner and needing some way to close out his film, he goes to a wild extreme. And then when he goes there, he refuses to salvage it, drowning the film in an unholy and totally unearned melodrama. John Carpenter talks about flashing the gun at the beginning of Cigarette Burns to establish its existence so that when it comes into play later, it doesn't feel random or arbitrary. Figgis never flashes the gun. When the scene of violence occurs at the end of the film, there's an emotional throughline for it but no practical one, and it fails miserably.

The third failing is the decision to make a black comedy. Black comedy is, in my experience, something that requires a more certain and adept hand; you can have a dark sensibility in your film (this film lacks it) that can inform improvised performances, but black comedy really does merit an actual screenplay. I wouldn't have known he tried to make a black comedy if I hadn't heard him say it in the extras, and I think that speaks volumes.

This experiment is a failure. If it suggests a means of expressing plot lines occurring simultaneously, there are better ways of doing it than deluging the viewer with imagery and leaving them constantly feeling like they may have missed something. That kind of deluge may just inspire the viewer to give up entirely on the film and become detached instead of involved, murdering their interest and investment in it. Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on films, particularly his very first one, play with depicting events occurring simultaneously, and they do it without anything fancy. Time in film is malleable, so to make a film utterly married to it is like tying one of your hands behind your back as an artist.

There's nothing achieved here that couldn't have been done better with a single camera, traditional editing, and a God damn script. It's an exercise in excess, and its sole purpose for existing is to serve as a warning to others. It's a series of gimmicks suspended on a shitty story, and I'd appreciate it if you'd be a discerning enough viewer to go watch something more honest. Like a Friday the 13th sequel.

You'll enjoy it more.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.