Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Sleeping Beauty (2011) has strong ideas in service of a lifeless film.

Sleeping Beauty
105 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

It is not fair to writer/director Julia Leigh that I have such strong feelings about Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch.  (here, here, and here). It is not fair that I was so utterly annoyed by the critical community's absolute refusal to even acknowledge the rather unsubtle subtext and ideas that justified the fantastical elements.  It is perhaps ironic that within the same year we get two Emily Browning pictures that are sexually-charged and are knee deep in some rather pointed social commentary about how women are viewed in the culture.  Broadly speaking, Sleeping Beauty and Sucker Punch have many of the same ideas and opinions about the wholesale objectification of women.  Unfortunately, while Sucker Punch has fantastical environments and jaw-dropping action sequences to justify its existence as pop entertainment, Sleeping Beauty frankly has little to offer but its ideas.

A token amount of plot: In short, the film involves the exploits of graduate student Lucy (Emily Browning) who finds herself applying for a mysterious job.  While the job starts out with her serving as a waitress for an exclusive gentlemen's club, a job that calls for basically serving men while half-naked.  For an additional price, the men can receive a most unusual service.  The girls (including Lucy) will take a drug cocktail which will render them unconscious for several hours, during which the men can do, save for actual penetration, whatever they want to the sleeping women.  And that's about it.  The film is generally full of long, mostly silent takes, where characters silently do random tasks that fail to entertain or even engage.  Aside from a strong performance from Browning and a few key moments, the film almost plays like a satire of the conventional art-house picture.  While the subject matter is interesting and the ideas are worthy of discussion, it is a far more entertaining movie to talk about than it is to watch.

Which is a shame, because the ideas on display are indeed provocative.  At its core, Sleeping Beauty is a meditation on the inevitable end-point of female objectification.  In a society that views women primarily as objects to be played with, having an unconscious, silent, unfeeling,  and unthinking woman to 'play' with becomes the purest form of said philosophy.  But, thanks to its art-house pretension and its weakness as a film, it is unlikely to be seen by anyone who might actually take its moralizing to heart.  Moreover, the film is less daring than Sucker Punch, which had the courage to (and was punished for) be explicitly accusing mainstream culture, especially geek culture, of practicing old-fashioned misogyny under the guise of fantasy-laden 'female empowerment'.   Even had Sucker Punch not existed, Sleeping Beauty would still be a success on its intellectual merits but a failure in its delivery of its thesis statements.  Great ideas, mediocre and relatively dull movie.

Grade: C-               

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