American Ugliness

sarris sleepwalkingharrel American UglinessSLEEPWALKING
Running Time 100 minutes
Written by Zac Stanford
Directed by William Maher
Starring Charlize Theron, Nick Stahl, AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Hopper, Woody Harrelson

What is happening to the leading ladies of the tarnished silver screen? Like hapless Naomi Watts in Funny Games, gorgeous Charlize Theron has produced her own movie, Sleepwalking. It’s a slight improvement, but not enough to write home about. Another depressing tale of the dead-end ennui of disenfranchised Americans with nothing to live for in rural wastelands that specialize in unemployment and suicide, it shows how fascinated filmmakers have become with desperation and despair in a burned-out hick-town landscape where the American dream has turned into the American nightmare. When you see how hopeless the lives of the American people have become in endless independent films that drive the movie audience away in mobs, you understand why the big, dumb action comics and sub-mental, Will Ferrell alleged comedies make all the money. Escape sells.

When her boyfriend is arrested, leaving her homeless, an irresponsible, immature single mother with a reputation as the town tramp named Joleen (a chain-smoking Ms. Theron, working hard to obliterate her beauty with wrinkles, dirt and baggy eyes) moves her 11-year-old daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), into the small rented flat of Joleen’s 30-year-old brother, James (Nick Stahl), and leaves town with another hoodlum. James is sweet and good-natured but a bit slow upstairs. He cares that the distraught adolescent has been deserted, but is in no way prepared to shoulder the total responsibility of raising a niece who is wise beyond her years and on the threshold of early womanhood. The movie is about how their relationship develops, hits rock walls and finally offers a solution for their compromised lives. The dramatic decision that changes everything comes when James loses his job, Tara faces foster care, and they invent new identities, pretending to be father and daughter, and run away together. The road leads to the rotting horse farm in Utah where James and Joleen spent their miserable childhoods, and the vicious, hard and abusive father they ran away from (played with thorny, snarling and heartless brutality by Dennis Hopper). The conflicts end in violence and bloodshed, of course, with their lives on a detour to hell.

Low-key performances and only minimal facts relayed through bare-bones dialogue by Zac Stanford, who wrote the awful Chumscrubber, give Sleepwalking a calm demeanor so devoid of human experience that it’s hard to stay alert. Whatever small attempts made by debut director William Maher to develop something resembling a plot are diluted by extraneous padding, like prolonged shots of Tara, now called “Nicole,” jumping into a motel swimming pool wearing roller skates. Sleepwalking pretty much accurately describes this movie and everything in it, including Woody Harrelson.

I don’t blame Ms. Theron for playing down and dirty, hiding her natural beauty from prying cameras, but after her turn as a lesbian serial killer in Monster, what else is she trying to prove? A little ugliness and axle grease can give you Oscars. Too much can give you hives.