When thinking of directors who seem to constantly reinvent themselves, Ang Lee (who went from “Hulk” to the forthcoming “Brokeback Mountain”) and Curtis Hanson (who went from “L.A. Confidential” to “8 Mile” to “In Her Shoes”) immediately come to mind, but lesser-known German director Marc Forster has, in a short time, developed a resume of startlingly different films. From the gritty “Monster’s Ball” to the charming “Finding Neverland” to his latest feature, the psychological thriller “Stay,” he continually explores a new genre he has never worked within before. But this time, doing his best David Lynch, Forster doesn’t live up to expectations coming off the Best Picture-nominated “Neverland.” Though intended as a thought-provoking mind trip, “Stay” comes off a shameless, almost avant-garde product of self-indulgence that’s satisfying as neither a psychodrama nor a thriller.

The film centers on three main characters living in New York City. Psychologist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor, “The Island”) races against time to stop a deranged patient, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling, “The Notebook”), from committing suicide. Proof of Henry’s mental state comes when Sam asks him why he burnt himself and he responds that he’s “practicing for Hell.” Conveniently, Sam is living with girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts, “The Ring Two”) who attempted suicide but survived.

It’s astonishing that three actors as talented as McGregor, Gosling and Watts committed to a movie of such little substance. Gosling has lost almost all the fire that made him so convincing in “The Believer,” and Watts just doesn’t do anything to develop her character. McGregor at least retains some credibility if only for his ability to shed his Hollywood-star persona and seamlessly transform himself into virtually any character.

The film’s driving notion of a dual reality is established not by the script but by the unusual visual technique. The manner it’s edited is meant to disorient; we see two characters walking down a flight of stairs and one suddenly disappears, or two people walk through a doorway and the one who walked through first is suddenly behind the other. Editor Matt Chesse (“Finding Neverland”) obviously spent a great deal of time planning ornate transitions between scenes, and these breaks in continuity are essential to the theme of the movie. But no matter how skillfully the film is constructed, the fact remains that the plot severely lacks direction. Instead of paying attention to what was happening on the screen, we find ourselves simply waiting for the inevitable explanation of all these bizarre events.

But when the ending does come, even then it still does not firmly define everything that happened in the film. While it might ultimately become a cult classic like “Donnie Darko” did because of its unusual stab at originality, it lacks the solid narrative foundation that propelled that film. There are no parts that are scary (even though some might have been intended to be), so the body of the movie is essentially useless rhetoric that frustratingly builds to an anti-climactic finale.

“Stay” has no big “twist ending” like that in “Sixth Sense” – instead there are clues revealed throughout the film that keep coming until they have all been revealed by the end. Certainly Forster and screenwriter David Benioff (“Troy”) intended audiences to eviscerate and consider it long after they leave the theater, but it’s likely that the only thing they’ll be considering was why they went to see it in the first place.

 

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

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