REVIEW: Sweet Dreams; "Too Much Sleep" Recalls Amerindie's Heyday
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 03.23.01) -- "Too Much Sleep" harkens back to the golden years of the Amerindie boom, to the early-nineties wave of David O. Russell's "Spanking the Monkey" and Stacy Cochran's "My New Gun," when suburban ennui exuded charm in the hands of filmmakers you could say were gleefully wet behind the years. ("Too Much Sleep" isn't far off, having been finished in 1997.) Nowadays, of course, anyone can grab a digital camera and film the angry oil stains on their tract-home driveway and it's the new social realism.
What's so refreshing about "Too Much Sleep," the latest installment in The Shooting Gallery Film Series, is how its writer-director David Maquiling opts to shirk current indie conventions in favor of something that feels almost organic -- like folklore. Those expecting a knock down the stairs and a bruise on the forehead might want to revisit "Judy Berlin," the small, sweet suburban valentine that opened the series a year ago. Both films exude the same gravitational quandary that lies at the heart of suburbia's elusive tug-of-war. Either you can't go home again, or else you're stuck in tract-home hell forever -- an apt metaphor for Amerindie's first wave of filmmakers, who ran so quickly toward Hollywood that their debuts feel like forgotten figments of the past.
In "Too Much Sleep," Jack Crawford (Marc Palmieri) is a 24-year-old security guard in a bland New Jersey hamlet who's still living at home with his bank teller mom -- dad was some sort of community paragon who died several years prior, leaving Jack to navigate his early twenties in a soporific haze. We never get to see what Mrs. Crawford looks like. That she leaves elaborate sticky notes for Jack ("You owe me $33.42 for the phone bill!") tells us everything we need to know: Jack wants his dad back. In the film's opening scene, he lumbers down the sidewalk, as cicadas chirp and sprinklers spray and summer lawns hiss, like a sleepwalker held prisoner by the ambient din of suburbia. When his 38-caliber revolver -- a gift from his father -- gets swiped on a transit bus, Jack embarks on the obligatory quest through the molasses of the suburban Jersey underworld to find the weapon -- and by extension himself.
With the aid of blabbermouth retiree and aspiring Soprano Eddie Deluca (Pasquale Gaeta), a front-lawn layabout "who used to work for the authorities" -- he was the deputy county clerk for 19 years -- Jack moves from surreal A-frame house parties, seedy go-go clubs (the dancers are male, but the clientele looks and acts hetero), desolate strip-mall Chinese restaurants and garishly decorated living rooms, until he finally discovers the object of his quest, and of course, it's not the revolver.
Palmieri, reminiscent of Anthony Michael Hall during his darkest days (circa 1991) succeeds in injecting just the right amount of life into an otherwise stuporous character, while Gaeta delivers a far more lively performance. We've seen the Eddie Deluca type in countless Woody Allen movies and while it's easy to tire quickly of his smarmy loquaciousness, Gaeta transforms this harmless motormouth into something much more than another cartoonish schmuck with a heart of gold. Maquiling's wise enough to drop only the most casual hints about this deceptively tragic character's rueful past. In the end, Eddie wins you over in the same way Madeleine Kahn's chatterbox heroine did in "Judy Berlin."
While its script bears the earmarks of someone who was force-fed too much Joseph Campbell in film school, "Too Much Sleep" manages to attain the narcotic allure of a dark comedy like "After Hours" as it progresses from one quirky scenario to the next. (It also recalls "The Sopranos" in that sense.) The film's gallery of bland eccentrics seems lifted straight from Bill Owens' "Suburbia," the 1973 photographic collection that inspired an entire subdivision of indie fare with its banal, deceptively convivial aesthetic.
Like the subjects depicted in that tome, the characters in "Too Much Sleep" strive to remain as courteous as possible to each other, as if they'd been sedated into submission by their own environs; even when Jack's beaten to a pulp by a bouncer outside a strip club, his attacker implores him to take two Tylenols and administer cold compresses to the wounds. A mean harridan who sprays Jack with mace (actually it's Jovan Musk perfume) winds up buying him a cold beer. And the prime suspect in his investigation -- an old high school classmate (Nicol Zanzarella) -- winds up going to bed with him, reminding us that perhaps suburbia isn't quite as malevolent as movies have led us to believe.
Much of "Too Much Sleep" feels awkward and tentative -- some of its dialogue falls flat and many of the characters and the actors who portray them come across as cardboard renderings of Bill Owens archetypes. But its sweetness rules out in the end, reminding you just how satisfied a first film can leave you feeling, faults and all. You don't sense this very often these days -- is it the digital rush? The compulsion for young filmmakers to conquer the studios before they've mastered their own craft? Have we as an audience become as narcoleptic as Jack Crawford in our own cinematic diet?
Maquiling, whose father emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the sixties, has likened "Too Much Sleep" to folklore in its attempts to tap into the roots of a culture, grounding the beliefs of a people and their values to the natural forces of the universe. Whatever. By letting the action in his film unfold innocently, "unimpeded by all that we now know today," as he says, Maquiling's unearthed a far more sobering message. If "Too Much Sleep" feels archetypal and old school, it's to its own credit. It reminds you of what independent film felt like when it was truly that.
[Andy Bailey is a contributing film critic to indieWIRE.]