"Industrial-strength boredom" is a vicious term to unload on anybody -- friend, foe or former actress. Considering the lingering discomfort it inspires, one must beware of its impact, even around a seemingly invulnerable producer returning to the screen to melt our hearts in yet another variation on the emotional doppelgänger narrative, à la Sliding Double Lives of Me Myself I. Of course, there must be some productive way to use that term, and it isn't fair to slam a film for redundancy alone, but one imagines screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man, Waiting to Exhale) could do better than merely dusting off his 10-year-old script with co-writer David Field and tossing it to celebrated Belgian director Alain Berliner (Ma Vie en Rose). True enough, the denouement here reveals an intriguing narrative skeleton, but the flesh ladled onto it for the first hour-and-a-half is pallid and formless. As Demi Moore herself puts it, "I'm so obvious! God, I hate that!"
In Passion of Mind, Moore plays a woman with two names and two lives. In the fast lane of New York City, she is known as Marty, a sleek and savvy literary agent with a meticulous coif and a dragonfly barrette, ruling her world by cell phone. In the pastoral French countryside of Provence, however, she is Marie, a widowed mother of two incessantly gleeful daughters. If you recall, Jane Fonda hit similar notes 20 years ago, in On Golden Pond, proclaiming to Katharine Hepburn her power over LA but feeling like a "little fat girl" at her parents' provincial cottage. There's no sweetly gruff, paternal Henry Fonda this time -- he's been replaced by two uppity analysts -- and, as the beau, acting machine Dabney Coleman has somehow morphed into the extra-squishy duo of Stellan Skarsgård and William Fichtner. But the vibe is the same, except for this tiny technical detail: Unlike psychologically distressed jet-setter Fonda, Moore needs only to fall asleep to be transferred from one wonderful life to another.
So what's the problem?
The somnambulistic conceit is a useful, abstract way to sum up the dilemma of balancing domestic tranquility with career obsession, but it also crumbles spectacularly on rudimentary contemplation. If Marty/Marie (whose surname, curiously, is Willis) is suffering so much anguish not knowing which of her lives is real and which a dream, then why doesn't she just get on a plane and meet herself for lunch in Paris? E-mail, telephone, fax, FedEx ... surely both the edgy agent and the motherly book reviewer have heard of these advancements in modern communication, so why doesn't she simply get in touch with herself? Is the total lack of REM sleep rendering her delirious?
Maybe so, because -- despite literally having it all -- neither Marty nor Marie is having a particularly easy go of things. In France, she smiles through lonely denial, having lost her husband two years before. Enter William (Skarsgård), an author and chef so sturdy and inoffensive in his Banana Republic finery that he makes William Hurt look like G.G. Allin, flirting with Marie and her daughters in a perfect mating dance, right down to the candlelight dinner in a castle. OK, so that's perfect, and she's miserable. Keep cutting to New York, where Marty is charmed by the boundary-respecting adoration of colleague Aaron (Fichtner), to the point of swallowing his silly malarkey about New York's bridges' being beautiful, and, again, she is miserable. Analysts on both sides try to sway her ("See, that's the trouble with you guys -- you all think you're real!" she exclaims in a rare moment of levity), and her affairs with both men grow sticky. In France, her matronly friend Jessie (Sinead Cusack) offers the most comfort, but even her kind advice is laced with selfish concerns: "You don't have to give up the whole dream, just the man." Poor, puzzled Marie/Marty chain-smokes so much in both worlds, one wonders whether she's subsidized by Philip Morris.
Moore isn't coasting here, and, as mentioned earlier, the crux of this conflict is interesting, but regardless of how much she writhes in passion or trembles in inner torment (only a baby step away from St. Elmo's Fire), she never really seems vulnerable, and, because everything she has is good, it doesn't seem to matter how she resolves her "conflict." This could be because both her lovers are limp-wristed caricatures (Fichtner's a versatile actor, but under Berliner's helm he plays like a young, castrated Clint Eastwood, mumbling, "I'm dangerous," instead of turning her on by proving it). It could also be because, no matter what happens, she holds all the cards and is guaranteed a victory. No amount of schmaltzy music or lobotomized romance can conceal the emotional sledgehammer she's wielding.
On the upside, a few nice elements are buried in this otherwise dull emotional landscape. For example, it's a pleasure to see that the people of France have finally come down off their silly pedestal and decided to speak English like the rest of us. Kidding aside, it is genuinely moving when we catch occasional glimpses of Marie's soul, symbolized by a stack of short stories, hidden away in a closet. In these moments, the emotions feel real. Unfortunately, much like The Sixth Sense, Passion of Mind is less a spiritual quest than a very self-indulgent gimmick movie that could use a strong shot of inspiration. Perhaps if Paramount Classics had swapped Berliner for Sofia Coppola, giving him The Virgin Suicides and her this more feminine exploration, both projects might have benefited from deeper insight. After all, if these dreams are the most fanciful Moore's character can come up with, the producers should have saved us the yawns and summoned Freddy Krueger.
Opens June 2 at the Plaza Frontenac.