Certain genres are stained by their cultural surroundings. Film noir, for example, will always sit in that uneasy time between the end of World War II and the brightness of white flight late '50s suburbia. It's a combination of old world crust and new age alienation, crime and punishment typically metered out in amoral, unpleasant doses. Try as they might, it's tough for the modern mindset to make this mannered motion picture style work. For every Sin City there's a Spirit (though this critic actually loved both Frank Miller efforts), for every well intentioned film student soaked in a classroom loaded with classics, there's abundant visual clichés and shallow Sam Spade-lite scripting. A good example of this cold contemporary approach comes in the form of The Perfect Sleep. From the Raymond Chandler rip-off title to the love of location over cinematic logistics, this work by the creative team of Anton Pardoe (writer) and Jeremy Alter (director) is all style and very little substance. We can definitely appreciate the look and feel of the film. The entertainment value is another matter all together.
After more than ten years away from the crime family that raised him, The Narrator has been forcibly returned to his dark, dire origins. There, he must face some long simmering retribution. 'Adopted' brother Rajah holds our sullen anti-hero responsible for his father's death, even though it was mob boss (and surrogate dad) Nikolai that actually did the deed. Now, the up and coming crime lord wants payback, and The Narrator appears to be the source of his settlement. When the hit doesn't quite go as planned, our lead looks up a lost love from his past, a gorgeous gal named Pophyria which he refers to as his "Princess". Naturally, she has moved on, married, and had a beautiful daughter of her own. When The Narrator finds out that the child has been kidnapped, he steps up to rescue her. Turns out, the abduction may be a set-up, a way for Nikolai to guarantee that Rajah meets his mark - and eliminates him once and for all.
Like an experiment never meant to be seen by the general public, The Perfect Sleep plays like a private joke between insular film fans. It's so inside, so locked into its own view of the cinematic world created in the '40s and '50s that it forgets to inject some fun into the mix. There is nothing wrong with playing around with genre types, clichés, well-honed references, and all manner of script sculpting. But when the results add up to 105 minutes of endless talking, when the only action is limited to a couple of minor fight scenes and one extended shoot out, you're definitely dialing in a mostly dead experience. The acting is spot on, and many in the cast, including known names like Roselyn Sanchez (grrrrowl!) and Michael Paré acquit themselves more than admirably. But when the story ceases engaging us, when we no longer care about The Narrator, or Rajah, or the final stand-off to save Pophyria's daughter, the obvious mannerisms of this movie start to show through. Before long, this attempted post-modern period piece becomes just another superficial shell game.
Tone can only take you so far, but Alter has yet to learn this. As a location manager for major Hollywood hits (he's worked on The Nutty Professor, Wild Hogs, and the Coen's Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, among many others) he clearly has an eye for backdrop. Though its use is more or less a Tinsel Town chestnut at this point, the Bradbury Building still looks amazing. But then he puts characters into these creative spaces that add nothing to our desire to be involved here. Sure, there are some memorable moments - a beat down between a massive African American bodyguard and a wily would-be assassin, an Eastern Bloc doc who loves to describe the kind of damage he will do with his ever-present scalpel, but they are peanuts compared to the individuals in it for the long haul. Neither Rajah, or Nikolai, or any number of baddies we see during the course of The Perfect Sleep truly get under our skin. Instead, they are motion picture placeholders, necessary cogs in a foregone creative conclusion that never once figures out simply stand up and come alive.
Maybe with a tighter script, with less narration and more physical confrontation, The Perfect Sleep would be a keeper. Pardoe is so in love with his own words that his character's voice-over descriptions sound like love letters to a series of inanimate objects. There is so much exposition, so much "let's put this into perspective" pouting that the formalities of filmmaking get tossed out the Venetian blinded windows. The plot doesn't even have a crackling denouement, a moment when someone's sister/mother deserves a much needed slap in the face or when a conspiracy contains someone who the PI failed to recognize. Instead, there's the question of The Narrator's parentage that's all but left up for grabs, and in the end, when we see him literally bleeding to death, there is no indication of whether our lead lives or dies. Sure, a lot can be inferred here, but movies like this don't usually work as intellectualized exercises. Just ask David Lynch. While one can definitely get behind its incredibly technical prowess, The Perfect Sleep is an imperfect attempt at art. We need more passion and presence in this kind of faux film noir. Getting the basics right is just not enough.
As a work of widescreen imagination and varied visual panache, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer here is terrific. It does a wonderful job of capturing the contemporary noir feel without ever feeling too modern or manipulated. There are scenes in front of a fireplace that literally crackle with the expected warming glow, and an exterior sequence near a field of windmills looks wonderful. There are times when the characters do get lost in the shadows, but that's part of the plan with this kind of genre redux.
Offered in both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo 2.0 mix, The Perfect Sleep is all hushed tones and ambient mood music. The latter works quite well. The former is a little hard to hear. Adjusting the volume will definitely help, but it's odd that such a dialogue driven effort would house its words buried so unexceptionally within the overall soundscape - and there are no subtitles to help with the deciphering.
The distributor's sole contribution to the added context of this film is a stills gallery. That's it - no commentary from Alter and/or Pardoe, no production diaries or behind the scenes sneak peek. Indeed, a movie like this almost mandates such a digital fleshing out. Sans said bonus features, we wind up with a DVD package that's as paltry and ambiguous as the movie it houses.
Ambition can only carry you so far. Artistic ability and skill has to somehow translate into a kind of commercial connection less you loose the very people you are trying to impress. The Perfect Sleep clearly believes it has the making of a resplendent, reimagined tour de force. However, half a successful film does not a definitive cinematic statement make. As a result, Alter and Pardoe's efforts earn an uneasy Rent It. Many will probably take to this example of vision over viability, but most will just be bored silly. Film noir will always be at its best in stark black and white, in a world where women are dames or broads, where men shoot first and never really bother with the follow-up inquiries, where sin sits waiting around every corner and there's a SRO line just waiting to taste its wicked wares. The Perfect Sleep understands this all, and really does attempt to micromanage and then mimic it. Sadly, it fails to succeed on several levels except visually.