Nov. 2, 2005 12:00
20051102-film-0101
Sit still for Stay's surreal artistry, odd emotionalism and engaging performances.


Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) populates his new film Stay with a tangled texture of colors and patterns, mirror images, dizzying staircases, and inexplicable narrative developments. It's a daring experiment gone horribly right, this psycho swirl of a Yeats poem and a Dali painting. Stay makes absolutely no kind of rational sense. It is abstract, fluid, hard to figure out and absolutely mesmerizing.

New York City psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) helpfully takes over the caseload of an ailing colleague (Janeane Garofalo) and inherits pale, thin, troubled Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling). A young art student who promises to kill himself in three days, Henry sullenly puts out cigarettes on his forearm and seems to be able to predict the future. He wants to be forgiven for something terrible that he has done, but can't bring himself to address the issue head-on.

As a frazzled Foster follows every lead in a mad dash to prevent Henry from harming himself, the young doctor struggles with his feelings for Lila (Naomi Watts), an art professor, former patient and suicide survivor. He fingers the engagement ring in his pocket, wondering if she's cured or if she will one day try again. He counts her pills to see if she's been taking them on schedule. He avoids talking about Henry.

Somewhere along the way, Foster's reality begins to unravel in increasingly bizarre ways. He listens to his voice on an answering machine he never called; he witnesses the same scene ' piano movers labor as a young boy stumbles and loses his balloon ' on two different days. Henry becomes increasingly unhinged, materializing at odd times and wielding a gun. Not trippy enough? Check out the sets of twins and triplets populating the city streets, the frequent appearances of the number 21, the eerie mixing of air, land and water. Characters begin to morph into each other. Doors lead to unexpected places. We know we've busted right through the looking glass by the time Foster visits Henry's supposedly dead mother (Kate Burton), a turbaned matron who says the darndest things.

Stay is a mindblower, all right. Writer David Benioff (Troy) invites the audience to do the backstroke in his shoot-the-rapids stream of consciousness. It's a refreshing exercise in negative capability, this lingering loss of logic's control. McGregor, Watts and particularly Gosling manage to maintain equilibrium, delivering understated, complicated performances. The film's fugue state is audaciously heightened by Forster's lush visual artistry. Stay is a painting in motion, every detail exquisite from the harsh stainless steel of Foster's kitchen to the strange polka-dot wallpaper of his office.

Perhaps part of the point is that it's pointless to search for meaning when surrounded by such real beauty. Late in the film, Henry stands in the rainy night outside a dance studio. He is alone, raptly staring through the wet glass at the light and warmth of a dozen paired-off dancers. There is something terribly moving about this muted, fleeting moment, something beautiful and melancholy and all too easy to understand.

Nothing to Write Home About
Cameron Crowe's sweet self-indulgence wears thin in Elizabethtown.

Director Cameron Crowe is obsessed with failure. Call it whatever you want: burn-out, flame-out, inadequacy, nonsuccess. His male protagonists are usually succumbing to its many devils, luckily somewhere in the vicinity of a pretty young thing who sees them for what they really are. It's a formula that has worked well for him in the past (Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous). Not so much with Elizabethtown.

Hotshot shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is having an epically bad day. First, his company loses about $1 billion when it is forced to recall his newest shoe design; then, his sister calls to say that his dad had died while visiting family in Kentucky. Fleeing his professional fiasco, Drew heads to the small hamlet of Elizabethtown to make burial arrangements, meeting quirky flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst) along the way.

The movie is a sweet, muddled, music-heavy mess. It works best when offering glimpses of Drew's wacky Southern relatives; these scenes are so unaffected and heartwarming that they could happen at most houses around here this Thanksgiving. Dunst charms as the surprisingly wise, extremely chatty Claire, outshone only by a sensational Susan Sarandon as Drew's newly widowed, newly neurotic mom. Bloom, however, suffers from a deficit of character development, and the script manages only one or two fully realized moments.

Like its director, Elizabethtown is sort of wonderfully wistful, so it's hard to completely hate. But the story doesn't seem to know where it's going (unlike the earlier, more tightly scripted, brilliant Jerry Maguire). So what the audience is left with is a heavy dose of charm wrapped around a now-tired formula.

Where's the Cameron Crowe movie that says it's OK to fail even if a perky, pouty blonde isn't there to pick up the pieces? Now, that would be a movie about life.

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