You know what I love? Those novelty “Quotable” books you find in the overcrowded checkout displays at book stores. They’re usually buried between “101 Catholic Fart Jokes” and “500 Kute Kitty Piks”, and contain the best, pithiest lines from history’s most notable authors. They’re pocket-sized, so you can slip them out in the john on a date and memorize some Oscar Wilde before wiping your ass. These compact brain condoms both protect people from looking like they have nothing interesting to say and keep them from having to read anything more than three lines of 18-point type at a time.
(Much like brick-and-mortar book stores, I’m sure pocket quotables are on their way out. Is there an obsolescence app I can buy?)
I was reminded of these novelties while watching the characters in Dream for an Insomniac recite Aristotle and Kierkegaard to each other—writer/director Tiffanie DeBartolo fills their mouths with reference material that stands in for dialogue. The few lines that she actually writes herself are cliched, and repeated so often that I just wished she’d have ripped off more Kurt Cobain lyrics. The difference between DeBartolo’s writing and that of a dollar-ninety-nine point-of-purchase book is that her lines don’t so much roll off the tongue as drag the actors’ faces to the floor like lead weights.
To make sure we’re not too distracted to appreciate her genius, DeBartolo hangs her bons mots on a frayed clothesline of a story: a San Francisco actress/barista named Frankie (Ione Skye) falls in love with David (Mackenzie Astin), the hot, personable writer who just got hired at the coffee shop where she works. Frankie hasn’t been able to sleep since her parents died in a car accident when she was six; the upside to this is that she has more time to spend in the coffeehouse with her Sinatra-obsessed Uncle Leo (Seymour Cassel), closeted gay cousin Rob (Michael Landes), and small, loyal circle of 20-something aspiring artists. These include best friend Allison (Jennifer Aniston), whose main personality traits are speaking in a different Audition Accent from scene to scene and being Rachel from Friends, and Juice (Sean Blackman), the ubiquitous ’90s-Slacker-White-Guy-with-Dreads.
The only complication in Frankie’s life is that she’s fallen for a guy who has a girlfriend. David’s three-year sweetheart Molly (Leslie Stevens) is studying to be a lawyer—meaning she’s a square and a sellout who doesn’t understand passionate living. It’s bad enough that this is what Frankie makes of her after one two-minute introduction and that she spends the rest of the film trying to seduce David away from her because she’s in love, but DeBartolo also seems to share this cartoon opinion of Molly, as evidenced by her character being an awkward soggy blanket (which is understandable, I’d say, when walking into a coffee shop full of freaks and seeing your boyfriend dancing with another girl). We’re also meant to get down on her for having to study all the time and not being available for her “writer” boyfriend. Where I come from, that’s known as planning ahead: Captain Hot Scribe hasn’t penned anything in over a year and, despite what Frankie says, you really can’t live on love—especially in San Francisco. But I digress…
If there’s a sub-plot here, I guess it’s that Frankie and David agree to assist with each other’s problems: she’ll help him bust through his writer’s block, he’ll help her fall asleep. I joked to my wife that DeBartolo could’ve killed two birds with one stone by having David write a screenplay called “Dream for an Insomniac”, which he’d then read to Frankie.
Speaking of my wife, here’s a cute little story. The other night, I said that I had a “chick flick” for us to watch. She got really excited, even though I told her it was pretty bad (I saw this movie about ten years ago, and blocked it from my mind until last week). We put in the DVD at 8pm and turned it off at 8:45. I’ve circled March 21st, 2011 in my mental calendar as the day I found a romantic comedy she couldn’t get through in one sitting.
We finished it last night, but only with the support system of our own running commentary. Watching Dream for an Insomiac straight is akin to being chained to a Starbucks counter for a whole day and being forced to suffer through the inane, inch-deep prattle of its patrons. Actually, it’s worse than that, because not every moment in a Starbucks is full of cute elevator music, making the experience feel like the trailer for a bad rom-com.
I mean, how can you appreciate a movie that represents everything bad about mid-90s independent slacker cinema without cruel, frequent jokes? From the first fifteen minutes being shot in black-and-white to represent Frankie’s COLORLESS world before David enters the picture to Rob’s secret boyfriend B.J. (Michael Sterk)—
Wait, pull over. I have to talk about B.J. Is this DeBartolo’s idea of a cute joke, naming the gay boyfriend “B.J.”? Was “Harold Richard” too subtle, or too obvious? And, as played by Sterk, this guy isn’t just homosexual, he’s the kind of four-alarm-fire, jazz-hands-and-Liza queer that struck fear into mainstream America before Ellen helped (almost) everyone relax. DeBartolo stops just short of dressing B.J. in ass-less chaps and playing “YMCA” whenever he pops up, and I couldn’t help but think of Sterk as playing Rainbow Face (it’s like Black Face, but with an emphasis on a different kind of brown—sorry, that was awful).
Despite being bored out of my mind during the endless, unfunny, pointless dialogue scenes (a new Holy Trinity of Bono/Vedder/Sinatra is a cute line, but not worth five minutes of screen time), I appreciate the spirit of Dream for an Insomniac. Like Frankie, it is in love with love, and has no idea about how the real world works. It is also obsessed with minutiae and thinks that everything old is “retro-cool”; in this way, it’s the perfect film for people in their 20s to latch onto.
Well, it’s not for everyone. I was recently reminded that when I saw this film at age twenty-three, my only reaction was a course assessment of the ending: like Winona Ryder choosing Ethan Hawke over Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, David dumps his earnest, loving, success-minded girlfriend and cures Frankie’s insomnia with a simple act of love-making; at the time, I boiled this down to my friend, Leslie, as, “So, basically, he fucks her to sleep.”
It’s funny, ‘cause that’s exactly what DeBartolo’s movie did to me.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 03/23/11.]