Call it a crutch if you’re feeling uncharitable, but I like to have an “angle” when I review a movie. But every time I tried to find a way of looking at Sleepwalking, it drifted somewhere else or stayed put and two-dimensional. It opens with that familiar movie image of an empty highway, wide-open spaces on either side. And as Pavlovian as the image is — instantly screaming “Journey of the Soul Ahead!”, “Metaphor Crossing” or “Next 100 Miles: Character Arcs” — it’s also a dangerously static one. Roads, crumbling American infrastructure aside, are flat. Please don’t let your movie be.
Charlize Theron, the glamorous star of many a red carpet, gives Sleepwalking a welcome jolt early on as she barges through the first scenes. She plays Joleen, a drifter with a tween daughter in tow, whose latest boyfriend is in trouble for growing marijuana. If Joleen is on something, it’s not marijuana. Theron tears through her scenes like she’s on coke … several cans, in short succession, and they’re definitely not of the caffeine-free variety. The actress, obviously still empowered by those deglammed Oscar runs for trouble-magnetized women in Monster (2003) and North Country (2005), excels at these low figures. She could probably do them in her sleep. She’s carefully mapped out her character’s psyche. There’s a depth and lived-in quality to her work that’s always exciting to watch even if the characters she plays (Monster excluded) aren’t thrilling on the page.
While Theron may not be sleepacting, Joleen is certainly sleepwalking through her life. She has vague “plans,” but she’s really just drifting from day to day, moving from one thing to the next. Without so much as a “may I trouble you for a spell…?” she’s marched her offspring (Tara, played by AnnaSophia Robb) and herself all over her brother James’s (Nick Stahl) humble apartment and even humbler life. Hey, she needed a place to crash! The actress skillfully exposes Joleen’s utter cluelessness and self-absorption during what should be a heart to heart with her newly trampled sibling. The mark of a great actor can often be seen in how well they play off their co-stars (this is why I can never get on the Phillip Seymour Hoffman bandwagon — he hogs every scene for himself, no matter if the scene in question calls for it or not), and even though Joleen is relentlessly self-serving and unable to connect, Theron does. The irony of her skilled and desperate performance is this: She’s sleeping through her life but she’s exhausted all the same.
Once Theron sneaks out the door, roughly half an hour into the picture, abandoning brother and child … what is the movie to do without her energy? The filmmakers prefer low-key pop numbers on the soundtrack and low-watt performers at the wheel like Nick Stahl, but the film desperately needs something like the energy of an anthem like “Life Is a Highway” to counter its dour money-strapped lives, dreary road trips and child abuse drama. Theron has me stealing another song altogether (with apologies to Dolly Parton) to convey my despair at her exit.
Joleen, Joleen, Joleen, Joleen
I’m begging of you please come back on cam’
Joleen, Joleen, Joleen, Joleen
Please don’t leave these actors playing your fam’
Let’s not call this next bit theft but homage. But at this point I’d like to tear a page from Webster’s Is My Bitch:
Sleepwalking: (noun) The act or an instance of walking or performing another activity associated with wakefulness while asleep or in a sleeplike state. Also called noctambulism, somnambulism, Tobey Maguireism
I hate to use someone else’s shtick, but Sleepwalking defeated my every early draft attempts to write about it. So I’m seeking community to understand it. Even thinking about it leads me to performing this activity (writing) associated with wakefulness in a sleepy state. Once Theron exits the picture, debut director William Maher, a former visual effects man, doesn’t have enough to train his camera on. Stahl, a reliable actor but not the film-carrying star that a low-energy movie like this one needs for fuel, stays true to his character, but James isn’t an involving fellow. And James and Tara are, as it turns out, the true protagonists of the story. Robb compounds the film’s lack of a suitable center. She misjudges her role, remaining insufficiently flattened or torn up about the various horrific events that befall her. She handles lighter scenes and emotions with flair, but the murkier psychological waters of a young girl abandoned and continually disappointed elude her. Aside from a brief and wonderfully empathetic performance from character actress Deborra-Lee Furness (Hugh Jackman’s real-life wife) as a friend of James’s, no one approaches the incisive depth of feeling that Theron managed in the opening act. Depth of feeling should deepen throughout a movie, particularly a road trip journey of the soul, rather than deflate like a faulty tire.
Without the driving force of Sleepwalking’s bad mother, the screenplay by Zac Stanford (The Chumscrubber) enters a repetitive downward plot spiral before it ever hits the road: Tara whines and James acquiesces, repeatedly. He gets himself into all sorts of trouble with his job and then the law. By the time this dazed and confused uncle and his angry and abandoned niece hit the road to journey to grandfather’s house, I had lost all interest. Better pacing or earlier screenplay reveals — the title scene (you knew there had to be one) is almost at the very end — might have helped the film. Dennis Hopper, beamed in from another movie entirely, appears in the film’s last act as the horror-show father that’s at the root of Joleen’s emotional chaos and James’s doormat soul. Hopper’s one-note performance is delivered with the expected charisma of a legendary actor, but it can’t save the movie.
Though I’m loath to defend movie executives and “story meetings” and any of the myriad soul-crushing ways that the Hollywood machine insures that movies turn out more like product than art, I began to feel like “a suit” as I watched Sleepwalking. I kept thinking of that cynical but practical writer’s question while watching it: “Who is your audience?” And try as I could to imagine the people around me in the theater, I couldn’t picture their faces. I had become some ungodly thing: half critic there for the art, half suit with demographics and quadrants in mind. Who were these people in the theater? What drew them inside the theater? I had Pajiba as an excuse. What was theirs? Did they feel as cut off from the movie as I did when Joleen walked out? For the first time that I can recall during a movie I desperately wanted the lights to come up so I could study them. Who were these strange people in the theater? Sleepwatchers. Will there be any more of their kind at the next showing?
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.
Sleepwalking / Nathaniel Rogers
Film | March 20, 2008 | Comments ()