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The Big Movie: Science of Sleep (R)

Flights of fancy sometimes hit pretty thin air
by: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., A move from Mexico to Paris puts Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) quite out of his realm. The actor is more up to the challenge than the character.

Marx brothers fans may recall the moment in 'Horse Feathers' when the luscious Thelma Todd tells Groucho he's 'so full of whimsy' and Groucho replies, 'I'm always that way after I eat radishes.'

Director Michel Gondry must have enjoyed a steady diet of radishes before making 'The Science of Sleep.' The film is nothing if not a test of individual whimsy-tolerance levels.

Gondry's third feature (not counting the 'Dave Chappelle's Block Party' concert documentary) is his first without a script by Charlie Kaufman, and might even be described as an attempt to wean himself off the author of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and the virtually unseen 'Human Nature.'

It is, appropriately enough, about a young man having trouble growing up.

Gael García Bernal stars as the fantasy-prone Stéphane, who leaves his home in Mexico to take a job arranged by his mother at a calendar publisher in Paris.

His hopes that the job will utilize his own artwork (childlike paintings of horrific disasters) are abruptly dashed, and his dream-life rallies against the tribulations of reality.

Stéphane's fantasies are rendered in a variety of styles, including some richly textured animations, which are safely in the comfort zone of a music video vet like Gondry.

As with so many other video types, he's a lot shakier when it comes to the big picture. His sense of invention thrived in service to an intricately constructed scripts such as Kaufman's 'Sunshine,' while the structure gave him balance.

Working from his own more cluttered semiautobiographical flights, he alternates between airy and wearying.

It's certainly possible to accept 'Sleep' as a winsomely handmade alternative to the more polished 'Sunshine,' if you're able to overlook the pervading man-child sensibility that constantly teeters between cute and cringe-inducing.

It's a tribute to Bernal's skill and charm that Stéphane isn't completely insufferable, and it helps to have Charlotte Gainsbourg as his would-be love interest Stéphanie (note the name play).

Her lanky, off-kilter beauty makes her ideal for the role of girl-next-door, and she is able to suggest the proper combination of dreaminess and practicality that might help ground Stéphane.

So, if the reality of Stéphane doesn't rip through the fantastical fabric, if the peach-fuzziness doesn't crinkle and wilt in the light of 'Eternal Sunshine,' you may drift happily away on Gondry's trippy whimsicality. But just to be safe, you might want to grab a few radishes from the snack bar on the way in.

- Pat Holmes

Cinema 21