Poor Judge Brendan Babish. He hasn't had a good night since he began having erotic dreams of Wilford Brimley.
Dreaming is believing.
Though writer/director Jake Paltrow is still popularly known as Bruce's son and Gwyneth's sister, he is beginning to come into his own. Over the past few years he's been cutting his teeth in television (directing selected episodes of NYPD Blue) and short films (for The New York Times). In 2007 his feature film debut, The Good Night, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Facts of the Case
Gary (Martin Freeman, The Office) is a former pop star struggling to adapt to the bland world of drudgery and long-term relationships. In particular, he is creatively stifled by his job as a commercial jingle writer and suffocating under a barrage of insults from his live-in girlfriend, Dora (Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love). Desperate for any means of escape, Gary begins dreaming about a beautiful sensual woman (Penelope Cruz, Vanilla Sky) with whom he feels an emotional and sexual connection. Desperate for more time with this illusory female, Gary visits Mel (Danny DeVito, The War of the Roses), a dream specialist, to learn how to sleep deeper and for longer periods of time. And then, things start getting weird…
I was initially intrigued by The Good Night. The film's got a great cast and is helmed by a young writer/director who—judging by his short films for The New York Times—has a striking visual style, which would seem to be an asset for a movie about dreams. But unfortunately, Paltrow the writer doesn't give Paltrow the director much to work with, and The Good Night ends up being, at its best, tedious, and at its worst, simply ludicrous.
There are several problems with the movie, but its fundamental flaw is a tone that is disjointed within the plot's conventions. The Good Night plays, for the most part, like a straightforward, conventional drama that is rooted firmly in reality. But then Gary, who otherwise seems to be a sane and reasonable person, begins dreaming about a beautiful woman with whom he falls hopelessly in love. First of all, I don't know anyone who is able to dictate their dreams as Gary seems able to do—which reminds me of Norm MacDonald's joke about attempting to return to a dream in which he was in a swimming pool with Christie Brinkley, but ended up shooting pool with David Brinkley, but I digress. Second, Gary's dreams are not only vivid in a way that my dreams have never been, but they're also strangely grounded in exotic, yet temporal, settings. It's as if Gary's subconscious is unable to imagine any fantastic elements—besides Penelope Cruz, of course. But the biggest problem, and the one I could never get over, is how this woman could be so emotionally resonant for Gary.
I understand and accept the phenomenon in which people dream about other individuals they know, and these imaginings often stimulate, or create, deeper interest. But I cannot imagine someone dreaming of a precise image of a person they have never met or seen, and developing an emotional connection with the concoction.
Still, even if one can overlook this fundamental problem(s), The Good Night can still be infuriating. Jake Paltrow seems to have difficulty creating female characters who behave reasonably. Strangely enough, Dora, played by Jake's sister Gwyneth, is one of the most unpleasant individuals I have ever seen in a movie. In every single encounter with Gary she badgers and belittles him in a dull, grating tone devoid of any trace of warmth or affection. This not only makes me wonder why Gary would have ever chosen to be with her in the first place, but also reduces the conflict Gary could have felt in choosing between his real and imagined girlfriend. And if it weren't bad enough that Jake cast his sister in this odious role, he also put Gwyneth in a long, frumpy wig that undermines her natural beauty.
Penelope Cruz's character doesn't come off much better. To describe the aberrant nature of her character here would give away an important plot point, but let's just say that her behavior is alternately inexplicable and off-putting.
There are still more, several more, odd and unwise elements of The Good Night. For some reason the film features the odd framing device of testimonials from a random assortment of individuals attesting to Gary's general good nature. Not only is this unnecessary, but nowhere outside of this device does the film portend to be a documentary. And why is Jarvis Cocker—cool guy though he is—one of the talking heads?
When you add together all the ineffectual elements of The Good Night what you get is an unpleasant and wholly unsatisfying film. As if that all weren't bad enough, the film's final scene seems to both undermine the previous 90 minutes, and espouse a trite philosophy. But I won't get too deeply into that, in case anyone out there hasn't been dissuaded by this review and plans on watching the film.
The DVD's picture and sound are adequate—or surprisingly strong, if you consider the film's small budget. The sole extra is commentary by Jake. He spends much of the commentary providing the inspiration behind scenes and explaining why certain decisions were made (the Cocker inclusion, for example).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All negativity aside, there are signs in The Good Night that Jake Paltrow has promise as both a writer and director. He displays a great ability at accentuating mood with music. His multiple uses of an orchestral mix of Blur's "The Universal" were particularly effective. Additionally, there are several minor comedic touches in The Good Night that belie the movie's otherwise tired plot. For example, Gary's late-night reading was The Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict. For some reason I thought this was hilarious, all the more so because the film never makes mention of it and is entirely apolitical in tone.
The Good Night is a drama that is both unengaging and seems to have no basis in reality. It lacks humor, insight, or any real conflict. The exploration of the relationship between one's dream state and reality is an intriguing topic, but perhaps one best suited for directors who have the imagination to create alternative realities, such as Terry Gilliam or Michel Gondry.
Also, there is a similarly themed, but far superior, film in which a character must choose between real and ethereal realities: Truly, Madly, Deeply, directed by the recently departed Anthony Minghella. This movie is nuanced, intelligent, and affecting, and I couldn't help recalling it often while watching The Good Night in exasperation.
Guilty of creating a dream world that is actually less interesting than reality.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by writer/director Jake Paltrow
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