City Paper is not for tourists
At 24, Jack Crawford (Marc Palmieri), the lethargic, whey-faced protagonist of Too Much Sleep, still lives with his mother. On nights when he can rouse himself from his narrow boyhood bed, he works as a security guard. One morning, returning home on a bus, Jack is distracted by Kate (Nicol Zanzarella), a pretty young woman, and later discovers that his gun has been stolen. He can’t report the theft to the police, because the revolver, which belonged to his late father, is unregistered. His efforts to recover the firearm involve him with an assortment of quirky individuals and alter his aimless existence.
Writer-director David Maquiling’s deadpan comic drama unfolds in a no man’s land of small businesses and working-class neighborhoods. Apart from a few characters’ accents indicating that the movie was shot in central New Jersey, the setting could be Anywhere, U.S.A. Refreshingly, the filmmaker’s objective isn’t to create yet another in the endless string of American Beauty-like condemnations of materialistic, spiritually stagnant suburbia. What Maquiling attempts, but doesn’t quite achieve, is what David Lynch captured in Blue Velvet: a sense of the strangeness lurking beneath the bland surfaces of American life.
Jack suspects that Kate and Judy (Judy Sabo Podinker), an older woman Kate talked to on the bus, made off with his gun. By chance, he spots Judy on the street and confronts her. She denies having anything to do with the robbery and, outraged, maces him with a Jovan Musk purse atomizer. He then enlists the help of Eddie (Pasquale Gaeta), a middle-aged blabbermouth who claims to have ties both to civic authorities and the Mob. This odd couple embarks on a search that leads them to an assortment of local establishments, including a car wash, a strip-mall cinema, a Chinese restaurant, and a male go-go club, whose jaded, ill-tempered owner, Sandy (Mary Ann Riel), dispatches her bouncers to rough up Jack.
Long before the culprit is identified, Maquiling conveys his shaggy-dog conviction that journeys are more important than destinations. The problem with Too Much Sleep, the third feature in this season’s Shooting Gallery series, is that the filmmaker fails to make the stations of his protagonist’s cross sufficiently amusing or gripping. Jack’s lumpish passivity grows tiresome as the narrative dissolves into a series of muffled vignettes.
Palmieri’s soporific performance does little to animate Maquiling’s sluggish protagonist. Gaeta is much livelier as Jack’s stumpy, know-it-all Italian guru, but he relies too heavily on Joe Pesci- and Danny DeVito-esque mannerisms. The secondary roles are skimpily written and too enigmatic to give the supporting players much to sink their teeth into. Too Much Sleep’s most distinctive element is Robert Mowen’s vividly hued camerawork, which transforms Matawan, N.J., into a vaguely surreal landscape.
In his feature debut, Maquiling appropriates aspects of several critically acclaimed indie movies: Slacker’s arbitrary structure, After Hours’ mélange of eccentric characters, Flirting With Disaster’s darkly comic view of lower-middle-class American life. But Too Much Sleep’s faltering pace and wan jokes wear thin. At the screening, I was awakened by the thud of my notebook hitting the floor. Had more been happening onscreen, I doubt that I would have drifted off so easily.
Too Much Sleep’s biggest surprise is contained in its press kit, which I read after returning home. Maquiling’s biography reveals that he’s a New Jersey-bred Asian-American, the son of a Filipino surgeon and an American nurse. In a “Director’s Statement,” he omits commentary on his debut feature and, instead, offers a brief dissertation on Filipino folklore:
The folk stories emerging from the Philippine archipelago can be seen as an attempt to explain the inexplicable, stimulate the imagination, and pass along the cultural images that have bound the people of the islands together through nearly 400 years of Spanish subjugation, a half-century of American rule, and the brutality of the Japanese occupation.
The Filipino myths are the essential threads that join our modern selves, in the face of an ever changing society, to the deep, unfathomable mysteries of the worldthe vastness of the sky, the endlessness of the sea, the lushness of the islands, the beauty of our lives.
Fearing that cultural myopia had blinded me to the folkloric subtext of Maquiling’s movie, I went to his film’s Web site (www.toomuchsleep.com) hoping to find some explanation of how he had recast timeless material in contemporary terms. Instead, I found a summary of a Filipino folktale, “The Hunter’s Promise: The Legend of Magat River,” which begins, “A long time ago, in a town called Bayombong, in Nueva Vizcaya province, there lived a hunter named Magat. He was young and strong, his eyes were keen, and his hands were sure and steady. He was swift as a deer and strong as a bull. Magat was the best hunter in the village and proud of it.” The story proceeds to recount how Magat saves a beautiful woman from a python attack and marries her, only to find her transformed into a crocodile when he accidentally breaks his vow never to gaze upon her at midday. Heartbroken, he drowns himself in the stream where he met her.
At the risk of betraying my stupidity, I fail to see any connection between brave, doomed Magat and indolent, clueless Jack, or any parallels linking the folktale’s cautionary narrative with Maquiling’s shambling plot. Is the filmmaker trying to inflate his work with an unwarranted patina of cross-cultural significance, or is he merely putting us on?
“With Too Much Sleep,” Maquiling concludes, “I’ve tried to honor the stories of our ancestors. I also hope that the movie is funny.” Judged by these criteria, I’m afraid that he’s failed on both counts. CP