T.S. Eliot has remarked, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." And who would dare to contradict him? Reality is a nasty, horrible mess. But a rash of new films offer a variety of nostrums for escape from the Real World. Wristcutters: A Love Story offers the easiest way out but other films prefer to seek an unsteady balance between reality and oblivion -- whether it be warbling away your miserable home life (Romance & Cigarettes), erasing your troublesome memories (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or, in the case of Jake Paltrow
's entertaining but slight debut film as director/writer, The Good Night, increasing your dream life at the expense of your depressingly mediocre and despairing waking reality.
In The Good Night, Martin Freeman
, in an interesting amalgam of Tim from The Office and the Arthur Dent of A Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy, plays Gary, an ex-rock musician, now toiling away in a dead-end job at a commercial jingle firm, working for his former bandmate Paul (Simon Pegg
). One of Gary's problems is that he knows he is wallowing in banality but can do nothing about it; his boss exhorts him to "make it bad." Article continues below
Along with a futile job, his personal life is a wreck. Gary is the kind of guy who brings out the worst in people -- at one point in the film, a woman has he just met declares, "You're making me feel I have to break up with you and I don't even know you." He is in a walking death relationship with his harpy girlfriend Dora (Gwyneth Paltrow
), who takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean Gary, calling him "a jerk," "a lunatic," and other forms of disaffection. You know things are bad when Gary is seen reading The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict as bedtime reading.
Depression quickly sets in and Gary takes his solace in sleep and dreams, particularly when his dreams feature Anna (PenÚlope Cruz
), a vision of loveliness. Given his choice of a miserable reality or a perfect dream world, Gary, of course, seeks to increase his dream load, which he does with the help of some Tylenol PM, nightshades, and the assistance of Mel (Danny DeVito
), his New Jersey guide to the land of lucid dreaming.
Jake Paltrow shoots Gary in his waking life in grainy and grungy, debilitated colors and frames the hapless Gary through windows and doorways, constricting and trapping him in his existence. This is in contrast to Gary's dream world, which is lush, expansive, vibrant, and free. The choices couldn't be starker -- either Dora glowering at him through a bathroom doorway or Anna walking sinuously towards him on the beach with her eyes eating him whole. Paltrow, channeling Michel Gondry, toggles between reality and dream, with the dream world so illusorily clean and perfect that it looks like the ultimate advertising commercial and Cruz the ultimate dream woman. (In the course of the film, it turns out that this dreamscape may be more and more a reflection of Gary's imagination fighting to realize the hack work demanded of him at his job.)
Since, late in the film, Gary composes a tune as an expression of his love that is as corny as elevator music, is Paltrow ultimately suggesting that Gary is so vapid that his dreams are merely heights of a creative banality that he cannot even achieve in real life? If so, except for a shock jolt at the film's end, Paltrow's clean, sitcom cutting belies that thought and in a barren and forlorn conclusion renders the enterprise futile, with Freeman's character left in the lurch. The Good Night is like Gary -- a cipher longing for something better but unable to crack through a blank surface. Paltrow's film is Gondry's The Science of Sleep, dulled by an overdose of Lunesta.