The weighty worlds of art and academia intersect with palpable affectation in “Impossible Monsters,” a visually studied but dramatically muddy first feature by Nathan Catucci.
Vying for a highly sought-after pharmaceutical grant, ambitious NYU professor Dr. Rich Freeman (Broadway star Santino Fontana) is under pressure from his dean (Laila Robins) to push forward a sleep study focusing on dreams, nightmares and sleep paralysis.
Among the participants are a creatively blocked artist (Dónall Ó Héalai) and a sex worker (Devika Bhise). Rich strikes up a romantic rapport with another participant (Natalie Knepp), the friend of the wife of a rival professor (Chris Henry Coffey).
But his professional and personal boundaries aren’t the only ones that become blurred as the divisions between the real and surreal turn increasingly nebulous, leading to a dark denouement.
As with the title, taken from the epigraph of Francisco Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” everything about the production feels self-important, from a carefully composed shot of a diner that pays homage to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” to the pointedly Bernard Herrmann-esque score.
That esoteric overlay is all very well and good provided there’s a sturdy nuts-and-bolts foundation beneath it, but the writing and direction never satisfyingly build on the initial intrigue.
Ultimately, just as the events tread a fine line between fantasy and reality, so does the film teeter precipitously between promise and pretense.
Running Time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 14, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; available March 3 on VOD