The failing of most very bad movies is that there was very little in the way of thinking that went into them. That is not the case with STAY. This overbearingly pretentious piffle has been overthought so much in its attempt to be clever and deep that rather than being engaging or mysterious or even hauntingly ambiguous, it is completely inaccessible. Sure, there’s the tidy twist ending that anyone who has seen “The Twilight Zone” can figure out after ten minutes. Alas, STAY never achieves that edgy dynamic of reality and unreality fighting out that was so often found in that series, hence the trip to said tidy twist ending doesn’t repay the excruciating incoherence that preceded it.
The nature of reality is the theme and it’s explored, badly, via Henry Leland (Ryan Gosling), a suicidal art student with a knack for predicting the weather and a problem with authority. Dumped as a pro bono case onto Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), he announces after several pointless sessions that he will be killing himself at midnight on Saturday, which it also his 21st birthday. The rest of the film is Sam trying to find Henry and stop him while also finding the right moment to pop the question to his live-in love, Lila (Naomi Watts), an art teacher who once attempted suicide herself with a grim professionalism. There is endless discussion of that incident between Sam and Lila, between Sam and his pal, Leon (Bob Hoskins), a blind fellow psychiatrist with little to do but be a prop for Henry’s oddness and Sam’s fretting as the fabric of the time/space continuum comes unglued around him. And as for the mystery of what’s going on, one need look no further than McGregor’s high-water pants rendered in an unfortunate yellow hue to know that this is no ordinary reality.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to care about any of these people. Even in emotional extremis, they are as tedious and colorless as the pale colors that make up the film’s color scheme. Lines are solemnly intoned as though there were a universe of portent to them without anything in the situations depicted to back that up. Director Marc Forster, who did such an excellent job of exploring human misery and redemption in MONSTER’S BALL, and the absolute wonder and joy of fantasy in FINDING NEVERLAND, has gone very far off the rails. These characters are as emotionally sterile as the oppressively insistent techno-industrial décor that furnishes their lives. The visuals are stylish, but as cold as everything else in the film done as much for the razzle and the dazzle as to advance the story.
Actions repeat, time jump-cuts and sometimes turns around on itself like an Escher print, but without the connectedness to be found there even when Escher twisted time and space using only two dimensions into a synthesis that is completely plastic. One senses that Forster was going there, but got lost in his zeal to be as dense as possible about where reality is to be found and with whom. It becomes an exercise in style that fails to grasp the subtle essence of how to tell the tale, leaving us all in the dust. It is worth noting that the single eeriest moment isn’t when one location or character melts into another, but rather it’s when a character walks into another room and, when another character goes to find her, she simply isn’t there. The single best moment comes from Janeane Garofalo, who bucking the narcoleptic delivery of every other actor on screen, perks things up with a startling infusion of a distinct, and distinctly wry, personality.
With its philosophic ponderings going belly up, STAY overstays its welcome and makes its audience long for something that might be short on erudition, but long on entertainment.