'Light Sleeper' lives out a nightmare

September 04, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The Taxi Driver is having a midlife crisis.

That's the merry gist of Paul Schrader's semi-new and very interesting film, which follows as a "Taxi Driver"-like character, a peripatetic dope delivery man named John LeTour, wanders New York becoming increasingly demoralized at the emptiness of his own life and the emptiness of those around him. His one illusion -- that love is possible -- is shattered. And so in the end, like Schrader's famous Travis Bickle, he pulls a gun and starts blasting.

The film offers up one of those creative conundrums: How much reiteration is an artist permitted before it's clear he's actually plagiarizing himself? An uncharitable viewer of this movie might point out that it's all reiteration, that Schrader even re-creates some of the camera angles and visual motifs of Scorsese's great film (it was Schrader's screenplay) and that he re-creates key devices, like the madman's diary that both Travis and LeTour keep. In fact, an especially ungenerous reading of the film would require a little tote board of comparison between the vivid original and the much paler version following 20 years later. There are many to be noted.

But let's not be ungenerous. The movie is smart and sassy and alluring. It's like a gifted impressionist updating his material with wit and brio and respect. In a movie season generally bereft of such pleasures, let's grab this one and cling to it.

Dafoe's LeTour was one of those bright and desperate pilgrims who rushed to embrace the narcotics lifestyle in the '60s when it seemed to be the most exciting thing in creation. For his enthusiasm, he was rewarded with a monkey on his back that almost killed him, a failed marriage, a self-esteem lower than snail slime and a bushel basket full of regrets. Now he's clean, but he can't get away from the life, not entirely, and so he's signed on as a glorified delivery boy for a high-end drug boutique, headed by Susan Sarandon, a kind of cheery earth mother dispensing powdery feel-good potions for fun and profit.

The movie, of course, demands that you accept this world as legitimate and its concerns as human rather than predatory. Schrader insists on a somewhat smarmy and self-deluding white bourgeoise moral position here: It's OK because nobody carries guns; it isn't crack they're selling, it's a service, not a turf war for street corners. But it isn't OK, not really, because drug dealers, no matter what color, are vampires who feed on weakness.

That aside, the portraits of people living in desperate need of chemical fortification are all poignant. And of course Schrader goes to great length to establish that LeTour is a "good" dope delivery man, who will even give a pep talk and an anti-drug spiel to a user at the end of the road.

Still, he's winding down. The life is ending. Sarandon's character is getting out to invest her millions in herbal cosmetics and

LeTour must face the rest of his life, about which he knows nothing. The movie is at its saddest when LeTour coughs up his delusions -- he wants to "learn about music," for example -- and Sarandon accidentally crushes them. We see that, far from being cosmopolitan, he's a sad little angel.

The breakthrough for LeTour occurs when he meets Marianne (Dana Delany), his ex-wife, and realizes how much he still loves her. For a brief moment, it appears that even in this morally provisional world, a sort of salvation is possible. But soon enough Marianne is taken from him (the connection between her and the movie's ultimate villains, a mob of narcissistic, wealthy Eurotrash princelings is a bit too convenient) and it's time for LeTour to strike back and "purify" the world.

This worked so much better 20 years back, with De Niro's smoldering intensity and Scorsese's plush and mesmerizing direction; that's why "Taxi Driver" has lasted and "Light Sleeper" won't. Somehow, Schrader doesn't create the world with quite the same totality; we don't feel as far inside LeTour's head as Scorsese got us into Bickle's.

'Light Sleeper'

Starring Willem Dafoe.

Directed by Paul Schrader.

Released by Fine Line.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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