`Too Much Sleep,' too little substance

Movie review

March 23, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

I love the Shooting Gallery series in principle and often in practice.

Shooting Gallery Films, a development / production / distribution company, takes worthy films without national distributors and books them in 16 cities for a minimum two-week run. It's an inventive antidote to the roulette-wheel releasing practices that have taken over independent and art-house movies. A little more than a year ago, the Shooting Gallery premiered one of my favorite recent American films, "Judy Berlin," a tale of middle-class angst overflowing with the humor and humanity that "American Beauty" only faked.

Now "Too Much Sleep" has opened in the Shooting Gallery's soul-of-suburbia slot. It occupies the niche, but doesn't fill it. The writer-director, David Maquiling, is so minimalist that you wouldn't miss much if you watched semi-awake and listened to a friend's running commentary.

Of course, from the title down, the movie is meant to evoke fatigue. The antihero is a 24-year-old security guard named Jack Crawford (Marc Palmieri), a strapping young man in a constant state of near-exhaustion. He lives with his mother in a flat part of central New Jersey and a billowing existential fog.

On a bus ride home one day, he falls victim to a pair of female con artists who swipe a paper bag containing his gun - an unregistered hand-me-down from his father. Not wishing to involve the police, anxious to get his hands back on the weapon, he calls on a friend's uncle named Eddie (Pasquale Gaeta), a diner-guy Napoleon who contends that he's got his finger on the jugular of Jack's unnamed township.

Maquiling may have intended the parallels to "Blue Velvet" and "After Hours" as one of his minimalist jokes. Basically, we watch Jack, a walking tabula rasa - and I mean walking, he doesn't own a car - carom from one enigmatic character to another. He doesn't trace clues: he takes Eddie's directions.

Before long, the audience realizes that Maquiling wants to create a contemporary folk tale. Jack is on an antihero's journey. He leaves his boyhood room and enters the company of men; he survives the central-Jersey equivalent of a Hadean netherworld; he takes pleasure in a woman without letting lust blind him; and he learns the use of violence as well as the power of conscience. Though it's funny to see this tribal coming-of-age acted out in a realm where the major tools of force are a bottle of Jovan Musk perfume and a Wiffle-ball bat, the fable blinds the director to a film's need for flesh and sinew.

If you've grown up in the suburbs, the modest lure of the movie comes from its everyday tics and oddities. The people Jack wants to connect with rarely recognize him, while an older female approaches him in a bus station and tells him he looks just like his father. There's no need for people to know each other in this atmosphere. Each human contact is lucky or random - or twisted so that one desperate person imprints his or her identity on another, usually Jack.

Distant and polite, Jack looks out of place, whether at a diner, a cocktail party, or a topless male dancing club as big and unadorned as an outlet store. Inevitably, strangers blurt out their desires and career goals to him, or theories on media and the body politic, rather than tell him how to get his gun or make it to the nearest bathroom.

Seen in clean, airy images tinged with dew or humidity, Maquling's suburban New Jersey is like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, Calif.: "There's no there there."

Days after watching the film, I find myself thinking over prolonged, empty shots like that of a clean white Chinese restaurant. But there are only two sharply drawn characters - the slab-like Jack, whose intelligent reticence grows on you, and that fire-plug Eddie, an annoying Joe Pesci manque - and they aren't strong enough to propel an audience through the vacuum. When you add it all up, there's not enough movie here.

`Too Much Sleep'

Starring Marc Palmieri and Pasquale Gaeta

Directed by David Maquiling

Unrated

Released by The Shooting Gallery

Running time 88 minutes

Sun score **

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