Like the upcoming exercise in sci-fi camp, Alien Trespass, The Perfect Sleep is an empty homage to a bygone genre. Several genres, in fact: It’s a kung-fu noir with a modern machine-gun mobster movie twist. If that sounds like fun, it’s not.) Writer Anton Pardoe stars as the Narrator, a snide mutterer who has come back to town after a decade or so in exile to clean up a lifetime’s worth of messes in a matter of hours; many people with exotic names have to die for reasons that are unclear, or at least unconvincing. Too frequently, I had little idea what was happening or who certain characters were, but the gist seems to be something about the children of enemy gangsters who have grown up to be enemy gangster-types themselves, with a heap of mommy and daddy issues to work out.
Our narrator explains the convoluted, character-packed story in an incessant voice-over—maybe a smart choice, as the dialogue scenes have all the nuance and credibility of a telenovela—that purports to imitate the hard-boiled prose poetry of Raymond Chandler, et al. “The sun’s taking a powder” means it’s getting dark, I think. (Or cloudy?) The visuals play along with the conceit: Director Alter uses canted camera angles, slits of light, exaggerated shadows, sepia-toned flashbacks, rooms lit by blinking neon signs. Characters have their names painted in block letters on the frosted glass windows of their office doors. Added up, these signifiers don’t reveal an appreciation for the works of Dashiell Hammett as much as they do for the Looney Tunes configurations of them. Perfect Sleep is more Racketeer Rabbit than Maltese Falcon, even though it’s so steeped in tragedy that it borders on the operatic.
The filmmakers also flaunt an unbecoming cynicism; repeatedly, the self-conscious narrator sarcastically comments on the film’s style, structure, and imagery. “Say, nice shot,” he remarks of one shadowy composition. “Sorry if it seems kind of cliché, but the French dig this kind of visual. And I dig the French.” That’s not admiration for a bygone genre—it’s ironically voiced disparagement. Brick lovingly twisted the tropes of the old detective story to craft an individually voiced mystery, but those conventions burden Perfect Sleep, which, like Baz Luhrmann’s Golden Age spoofs Australia and Moulin Rouge, tries to escape their oppressive weight through half-hearted dismissal—as well as, unlike Luhrmann, through introducing elements of the direct-to-DVD action movie.
The movie changes gears somewhat in the middle—Philip Marlowe wouldn’t have picked off goons with a sniper rifle—with kickboxing set pieces and a Game of Death interlude. The end result is muddled moviemaking that staples together disparate elements in the hope that the resulting collage will feel fresh. Instead, it’s soporifically sophomoric. Take thy tongue from out thy cheek.