"I don't know what's real anymore," admits Ewan McGregor's psychiatrist character toward the end of "Stay," and if he doesn't know what's going on, audiences sure aren't going to be able to figure it out. Inscrutable Fox release serves as one more piece of evidence showing why many viewers feel decreased motivation to run out to see films in theaters.

“I don’t know what’s real anymore,” admits Ewan McGregor’s psychiatrist character toward the end of “Stay,” and if he doesn’t know what’s going on, audiences sure aren’t going to be able to figure it out. An ultra-arty “The Sixth Sense” that deliberately inhibits comprehension of the story until the very end — and arguably continues to inhibit it even then — pic features certifiably talented people on both sides of the camera collaborating on a project that probably shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place. Inscrutable Fox release serves as one more piece of evidence showing why many viewers feel decreased motivation to run out to see films in theaters.

In theory, there are plenty of people who would happily ante up to see McGregor, Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling in a film by the director of “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland” and the writer of “The 25th Hour” and “Troy.” But most will likely sniff this one out for what it is, a would-be mystery thriller with pretensions to being something more that actually delivers a good deal less.

Story’s mechanics concern the efforts of McGregor’s shrink Sam Foster to prevent distraught student Henry Letham (Gosling) from committing suicide on the upcoming Saturday. Sam’s efforts to locate his new patient and those who know him propel the picture all over a New York City that, due to the cold, anonymous location choices, has been drained of its familiarity and humanity.

But director Marc Forster and writer David Benioff are more interested in investigating an indefinable point in time and space where Sam and Henry’s personalities merge, and they go to extraordinarily elaborate lengths trying to explore this convergence without making the viewer feel for a moment that this is interesting or meaningful, let alone plausible.

Indulging in minor-key surrealism, repetitive and circular motifs, space-warping transitions, doubling effects and good old hallucinations that recall Nicolas Roeg in his heyday, “Stay” is meant to inspire deep thoughts and the pondering of imponderables. This proves difficult to do, however, when one remains fixated on why Sam, otherwise nattily attired in Thom Brown designer suits, insists upon wearing no socks.

Whether or not Forster and Benioff could, if pressed, explain every mystifying element of their construct is beside the point, since one simply does not become sufficiently intrigued by the characters or situation to be bothered about the answers. Who really died in the startling Brooklyn Bridge car crash that opens the picture? Why does Henry get under Sam’s skin so profoundly? Is the blind psychiatrist played by Bob Hoskins Sam’s doctor or Henry’s late father? Did the woman (Kate Burton) who’s supposed to be Henry’s mother actually die several months earlier, as a cop insists? Does anyone actually know what’s real here, or care?

Missing socks aside, the design elements are absorbing in and of themselves and would have provided excellent ominous support to a story offering more substance to grab onto. While the capable McGregor and Gosling deliver nothing new from what they’ve shown before, Watts is radiant and, in a small role, Elizabeth Reaser registers as an intriguing newcomer.

Stay

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of a New Regency production. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Tom Lassally, Eric Kopeloff. Executive producers, Bill Garraro, Guymon Casady. Directed by Marc Forster. Screenplay, David Benioff.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints; widescreen), Roberto Schaefer; editor, Matt Chesse; music, Asche & Spencer; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art director, Jonathan Arkin; set decorator, George De Titta Jr.; costume designer, Frank Fleming; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), James Sabat; supervising sound editor, Ren Klyce; re-recording mixers, Lora Hirschberg, Michael Semanick; visual effects designer, Kevin Tod Haug; assistant director, Michael Lerman; casting, Francine Maisler, Alexa L. Fogel. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox studios, Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Sam Foster - Ewan McGregor Lila Culpepper - Naomi Watts Henry Letham - Ryan Gosling Dr. Beth Levy - Janeane Garofalo Dr. Ren - B.D. Wong Dr. Leon Patterson - Bob Hoskins Mrs. Letham - Kate Burton Sheriff Kennelly/Security Officer - Michael Gaston Business Man - Mark Margolis Athena - Elizabeth Reaser

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