Often you hear about how comedy stars who act in movies need to be kept in line by directors. Well, Michel Gondry is a director who needs comic geniuses to stay disciplined. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Dave Chappelle (Dave Chappelle’s Block Party) have filled that role for him in the past. There’s no such funny man checking him in The Science of Sleep, which he wrote as well as directed. The results are plain to see. The film’s blurring of reality and dream is wildly imaginative, at times thrilling. Yet it’s the movie’s only trick, and it’s not enough.
Gael García Bernal stars as Stéphane, a French-Mexican aspiring artist and inventor who moves back to Paris, the city where he spent part of his childhood, for a job illustrating calendars. However, the job turns out to be nothing more than laying out the calendars’ dates and running the typesetting machine. Stéphane uses his dreams to escape the tedium of his office life, as well as the heartache he finds when he tries to flirt with his neighbor across the hall, a pharmacy worker and wannabe composer named Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). If these characters’ matching names strike you as twee, consider it a warning of things to come.
That’s because all the boyish charm that García Bernal exudes and all the sweet chemistry between him and Gainsbourg can’t disguise the fact that Stéphane is a petulant, maladjusted, hopelessly immature, and somewhat creepy character who makes horrendously inappropriate jokes in Stéphanie’s presence and prefers losing himself in his fantasy life to dealing with messy reality. This wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal flaw if the filmmaker didn’t hold him up as some sort of hero, insisting on quashing all his unattractive qualities with the beauty of his dreams.
At least they are beautiful. These dreams go on when he closes his eyes: He flies above a papier-maché cityscape, hosts a low-rent tv show about his life, finds people and animals transformed into animated cloth figurines, and saves his bizarre co-workers from an apocalypse. The sequences alternate between melting lyricism and mordant humor, and they play out like first-rate music videos, which isn’t surprising given Gondry’s background in the medium.
The director would have been better off saving the ideas in this film for his videos. The wispy plot structure falls apart at the end, and you sense that Gondry doesn’t care. He could have gotten away with it if he’d produced something so mind-blowing that we didn’t care about the script. Clearly his magic has worked on some other viewers of this film. All I can say is, my patience ran out in the last half hour. Left to his own devices, Gondry loses sight of too many things amid his dreamlike visions. His brand of fantasy turns undifferentiated and edgeless, and The Science of Sleep emerges as a confection that’s all frosting and no cake.
The Science of Sleep
Starring Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Written and directed by Michel Gondry. Rated R.