2½ stars (out of four)
Movies are said to be, of all art forms, the one that comes closest to reproducing the dream state, which is exactly what director Marc Forster and writer David Benioff try to do in "Stay." Admirably imaginative but not always satisfying or compel- ling, "Stay" is a thriller in which, early on, we realize we're in some kind of nightmare. What seems to be happening to psychiatrist Sam Foster (played anxiously by Ewan McGregor) and college student/painter/potential suicide Henry Letham (played with surly self-absorption by Ryan Gosling) may not be happening at all, except in somebody's feverish mind.
The movie begins with a car wreck on the Brooklyn Bridge, from which Henry escapes. It proceeds to his first session with Samwhere we learn that Henry is obsessed with suicideand then begins rapidly shuttling from scene to scene, scare to scare.
Death haunts everything. Sam's girlfriend, Lila Culpepper (played by Naomi Watts, the star of David Lynch's more genuinely nightmarish "Mulholland Drive"), is an unsuccessful suicide herself with a grisly back story. We keep meeting charactersBob Hoskins as blind chess-master psychiatrist Dr. Leon Patterson, Kate Burton as Henry's mother and Janeane Garofalo as Dr. Beth Levywhom others insist are either dead or somebody else. People bleed profusely, die or disappear before our eyes.
At one point, one character exclaims that the Buddhists have it right: "The world is an illusion!" and it's a real case of beating a dead horsewhich, in this movie, would fit right in.
Meanwhile, suicide imagery keeps piling up, and Sam keeps getting mistaken for Henrythough Ewan McGregor looks nothing like Ryan Gosling. (In this movie, he sometimes looks like the young Charlie Sheen.)
McGregor is a good choice for an eerie, daffy movie like "Stay." Just as his fresh-faced openness worked effectively against the sordid backdrops of Danny Boyle's Scottish heroin addict film "Trainspotting," the actor's seeming sanity is a relief from "Stay's" overall screwball nightmarishness. It's also a relief from the psycho posturing of Gosling's Henry: a sub-James Dean-ish characterization with a lot of brooding, scowling and stubbing out of cigarettes on bare arms. The best performance comes from Hoskins, an actor who can bring truth and honesty even to balderdash.
Despite the actors, the visuals and Forster's directorial swagger, the movie lacks impact. Still, though I didn't like "Stay" much, I wouldn't be surprised if it became a cult movie for some. Watching it sometimes feels like getting trapped inside a deranged TV channel-surf or on one of the endless staircases in an M.C. Escher picture. Indeed, Henry's object of affection is an actress/waitress named Athena (Elizabeth Reaser), who's starring in a play she playfully mis-describes as the "Lesbian Hamlet," rehearsed in a theater where the staircases seem to have been designed by Escher.
The scenes themselves melt into each other like those soft Salvador Dali watches in "Persistence of Memory." The most original thing about "Stay," in fact, is its very fancy transitions; sequences, backgrounds and faces dissolve into each other (digitally, not in the old way) when the scene shiftsexactly as they do in bad dreams.
The basic plot gimmick/final surprise is clever but not too original (or surprising); it reminded me afterwards of a famous horror story by Ambrose Bierce. The movie, I think, misses a good bet by not exploiting its own title by using the great Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' rocker "Stay", since the actual Asche-Spencer score is pretty dolorous. So, all too often, is Forster's movie. Though visual prodigies abound, the nightmare never gets real enough.
Directed by Marc Forster; written by David Benioff; photographed by Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chesse; production designed by Kevin Thompson; visual effects by Kevin Tod Haug; music by Asche & Spencer; produced by Arnon Milchan, Tom Lassally, Eruc Kopeloff. A 20th Century Fox release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of a New Regency production; opens Friday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: R (for language and some disturbing images).
Sam Foster - Ewan McGregor
Henry Letham - Ryan Gosling
Lila Culpepper - Naomi Watts
Mrs. Letham - Kate Burton
Dr. Leon Patterson - Bob HoskinsCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times