I am not a fan of the wave of rehashed J-Horror that’s been streaming into movie theaters lately. I understand I’m supposed to be in awe of the actual Japanese films that preceded this trend — that is, if I hope to appear at all worldly. But that doesn’t mean I want to sit through films that try to capture the mystery that’s the cornerstone of this style of international cinema while simultaneously pandering to studio politics. Stay is the bastard offspring of this muddled line of moviemaking. It wants to be deep, dark and enigmatic — but it also wants you to notice IT HAS BIG CINEMA STARS!!! AND LOTS OF SHOTS OF NEW YORK!!! AND AWESOME CG EFFECTS — TOTALLY RAD!!! The result is a film that, were it a person, would be the equivalent of Jessica Simpson: Beautiful to look at, but so fucking irritating that you want to haul off and punch it until it’s quiet forever.
Psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan MacGregor) encounters a troubled young patient named Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling). A tortured art student who mumbles through his Brooklyn accent and smokes artfully to make sure we know he’s got problems, Henry has lost both his parents and the love of his life. He also has an uncanny ability to predict the future, which he proves by announcing an impending hailstorm without resorting to weather.com. Given the setting of the film (New York in the fall), I think my friend’s six-year-old daughter could make the same prediction with around 97 percent accuracy. But dubious meteorology skills are not all that set Henry apart, as the incredibly blatant spookymusic makes damned sure to indicate. It seems he wants to kill himself because he’s done something “very bad.” Perhaps he looked closely at the embarrassingly laughable dialogue in the script and was infuriated with himself for agreeing to be in it?
As a therapist, Dr. Foster is, understandably, very upset about this suicide threat. He also takes it personally because his girlfriend Lila (played valiantly by Naomi Watts) attempted suicide recently (again, I suspect she looked at the final cut of the film). And — what a coincidence! — Foster’s girlfriend Lila is a tortured artist! And as we know, all artists are attractive and suicidal — duh! When Foster attempts to gain information from Henry, all he finds are dead ends. And Henry has thrown the gauntlet by announcing he’ll off himself in no less than three days. Seems straightforward — Dr. Foster must unravel the mystery of Henry to keep him alive.
The film takes this premise and veers off wildly into art-house delusions of grandeur. The visual style of the film is absolutely gorgeous, at times reminiscent of the art of M.C. Escher. This is in many ways a distraction from the human interaction that is desperately needed to make us as an audience care about these characters. The frames are saturated in color, and the set designs are amazing. It’s a visual feast, but the story is starving at the banquet table. When the characters do talk, it’s cringe inducing. It feels like director Marc Forster is making sure we are aware that this movie is CLASSY and DEEP. Inclusions of an art lecture on the work of Goya and an acting class practice of the ever-misanthropic Hamlet serve to shove culture in our faces. Yes. We get it; but honestly, if the movie wants to make references like these land with its viewers, then it needs to shed its dependence on computer-generated effects and focus on the acting, illustrated clearly when Henry is shown at a seedy burlesque bar, weeping over his dead love. I thought for a split-second that the projectionist had turned to VH1 Classics and I was watching a Nine Inch Nails video. After that squirm-worthy moment, I was officially confused by the juxtaposition of MTV-house direction studded with heavy-handed attempts to make sure we were aware that somehow, somewhere, Forster took Art History 101 as an undergrad. Eeek.
Back to the movie at hand: Dr. Foster combs the city attempting to find answers and is increasingly drawn into Henry’s supernatural web. Phrases that were uttered by one character are sometimes repeated inexplicably by another. Those who appear to be living are said by someone else to be dead. Three sets of triplets pass casually by in the street. Events that took place days ago reoccur. All of this leads up to a conclusion that may be enough to make this movie worth it to those who enjoy being deliberately tormented by that one kid who would taunt, “I have a secret and I’m not telling!” As for me? I was eating a hot dog, wondering what the fuck was going on. I enjoy movies where it’s not spelled out for me (Memento) or where it is, but in a huge payoff at the end (The Sixth Sense). Stay attempts both and achieves neither. It smugly works at being confusing almost to the point of pure annoyance, and fills in that aggravation with stunning cinematography in an attempt to flash its artistry in your face. Honestly, the shots of New York are so rich and layered, it’s a shame they’re wasted here. Of course, this is New York City via Hollywood, where even the mentally ill have a Dutch modern apartment in Manhattan.
I think Stay is the type of movie that will appeal to angry Goth teens or those who like to use the word “trippy” before dropping tabs and drinking orange juice when they’re peaking. I, however, came out of it feeling confused, bewildered, and annoyed. So many questions were left unanswered. Questions like “What the hell are Ewan MacGregor and his agent thinking these days?!” And, “who hired a costumer that put him in trousers that were honestly three inches above his shoes — what the hell is that about? Wait, so like, was that one guy dead? Was there a vaguely homoerotic pull between MacGregor and Gosling? Did I actually pay $4 for a hot dog?” Do yourself a favor — save this one for NetFlix. At least then you can watch and re-watch to try and get some answers. Might I suggest making up a drinking game based on how many times Gosling attempts to use physical ticks to communicate his troubled past?
Brandy Barber is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can check out her weblog Hatefully Charming.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()