First-time feature writer-director Jake Paltrow's tale of the real and imaginary lives of a one-time rock musician reduced to writing jingles that "sound like Cheers" fails dismally as comedy, which is apparently what it's meant to be.
Once upon a time, British-born keyboard player Gary (Martin Freeman) had some small and fleeting success with an album called "On the One." Now he's in his early thirties and having a premature midlife crisis: He lives in a depressing New York apartment, is trapped in a dying relationship with girlfriend Dora (an aggressively drabbed-down Gwyneth Paltrow, the filmmaker's sister) and writes soulless music for TV commercials. His boss at the agency is an old bandmate, the callow, self-aggrandizing operator, Paul (Simon Pegg), who's made a bundle in advertising, cheats on his wife (Amber Rose Sealey) and never misses an opportunity to recast the band's history so he's at the center. Depressed and unmotivated, Gary comes alive only in his sleep, where the literal woman of his dreams, a sultry beauty named Anna (Penelope Cruz), caters to his every whim and fancy. As Gary and Dora drift further apart, Gary becomes obsessed with improving his dream life and seeks out the counsel of lucid-dream guru Mel (Danny DeVito), who gives him tips on improving the quality of his sleep and manipulating the workings of his subconscious mind. Gary's two lives collide when Paul introduces him to the real-life Anna, a model named Melody.
Paltrow's screenplay is a hodgepodge of halfhearted mockumentary cliches the better for Gary's friends and acquaintances to fill in his backstory and U.K. rocker Jarvis Cocker to contribute a cameo as himself and repetitive to-and-froing between the muddy drear of Gary's "real" world and the vividly realized landscapes of his dreams. The transitions are signaled through the self-conscious conceit of making Gary's glossy fantasies look like trashy perfume ads, while the real-world sequences are hideously art-directed, gloomily lit and shot in grainy 16mm. None of which can offset the fact that Dora, Gary and Mel are singularly uninteresting characters: Dora is a one-note nag, Gary mopes and moans, and Mel is embittered by the success of his New Age self-help rival, Alan Weigert (Michael Gambon). Paul may be loathsome, but Pegg invests him with an energy that eclipses the ostensible leads, while Cruz expertly mines the contrast between chic, compliant, white-clad Anna and funky, street-smart Melody, who treats Gary like the world-class drag he is. The movie's film-studentish navel-gazing wears thin long before its over. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh