"Stay," which owes more than a little to David Lynch and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," wants to be a clever, twisty-turny mind-screwer of a mystery, but comes up severely wanting. Similar also to 2005's devastatingly brilliant "November
," "Stay" features many of the same plot devices and freakish ideas, but unlike that overlooked indie gem, there doesn't seem to be much of a point to director Marc Forster's (2001's "Monster's Ball
") needlessly complicated stylistic tricks. All of the time spent trying to sort out the clues is ultimately for nothing, the culminating revelations adding up to a flimsy smoke and mirrors trick that can be guessed a mile away.
As the film begins, 20-year-old Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) sits disoriented in front of a fiery car wreckage. Switch forward a few months, he enters the office of part-time college psychiatrist Sam (Ewan McGregor) and announces that he is going to end his life on Saturday at midnight. Desperately wanting to help out this troubled young man, Sam seeks the guidance of his artist girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), a formerly suicidal woman herself who knows all too well what Henry must be going through. As Sam's journey to help Henry before it is too late intensifies, reality begins to blur with what could be dreams, hallucinations, or something else entirely.
As a fan of puzzle-box cinema (2001's "Mulholland Drive
" is the ultimate example done right), "Stay" simply doesn't cut it. Frustrating more than compelling and abstract in threadbare ways, director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Benioff (2002's "25th Hour
") push and pull their audience randomly and in so many different directions that you quickly feel like pushing it back at them. Save for some exquisitely shot scene transitions (with characters and settings seamlessly morphing into different people and places) that are frequently ingenious, the film is an empty shell. There are some dramatically effective scenes along the way, most of them dealing with Lila as she confronts many of her past demons as a way of helping Sam, but when all the cards are dealt at the end, the time spent getting to know the characters is rendered irrelevant.
Performances are thanklessly fine, with Naomi Watts (2005's "The Ring Two
") standing out as the most humane and complex as Lila. Watts' role eventually becomes secondary, but before then she is extraordinary in exhibiting emotions, many of them internal, in relevant and authentically poignant ways. As Sam and Henry, Ewan McGregor's (2005's "The Island
") and Ryan Gosling's (2004's "The Notebook
") abilities are fumbled; while they are at the story's core, their characters never become more than vaguely defined chess pawns. Turning up in brief but critical parts, Janeane Garofalo (2002's "Big Trouble
") is the troubled Dr. Beth Levy, slowly destroying herself with pills and booze; Bob Hoskins (2005's "Unleashed
") is the blind Dr. Leon Patterson, who Henry claims is his thought-to-be-dead father; and Elizabeth Reaser (2001's "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
") is Athena, an acquaintanceand maybe morefrom Henry's past.
Spending 98 minutes with "Stay" requires a lot of concentration for a disappointingly trite payoff. Wondering "Is that all there is?" when the end credits roll is a definite and warranted possibility for a corkscrew thriller that ends up emphasizing the "screw" part in regard to viewers who have paid ten bucks to see it. If "Stay" holds some underlying message or deep meaning, director Marc Forster lost sight of it in his attempts at building an atmospheric look and offbeat style. Had it not already been taken by a 1999 film
from Doug Liman, a more appropriate title for the flimsy "Stay" would have been "Go."