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SLEEPY TIME GAL, THE (director/writer/editor/producer: Christopher Münch; screenwriters: Alice Elliott Dark/excerpts from Mr. Münch’ book “Betty”; cinematographers: Marco Fargnoli/Rob Sweeney; editors: Annette Davey/Dody Dorn; music: Dan Barret; cast: Jacqueline Bisset (Frances), Martha Plimpton (Rebecca), Nick Stahl (Morgan), Amy Madigan (Maggie), Frankie Faison (Jimmy Dupree), Carmen Zapata (Anna, Frances’ mother), Peggy Gormley (Betty), Seymour Cassel (Bob), Molly Price (Rebecca’s Colleague), Kate McGregor-Stewart (Miriam), Clara Bellar (Mushroom Girl), Justin Theroux (Rebecca’s Boyfriend), Mark Tymchyshyn (Larry Mosher), Jessica Brooks Grant (Young Frances); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ruth Charny/Roni Deitz; Antarctic Pictures; 2001)
“A captivating and intimate study about dying and loving…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Christopher Münch (“The Hours and Times (1991)”/”Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996)”) is director, writer, editor, and producer of this marvelous indie semiautobiographical drama about the director’s mother that started filming in 1997 and took three years to complete. Mr. Münch is a major talent and this film is up there in quality with Paul Cox’s Innocence as far as an intelligent script for a woman’s pic woven from gloom but never feeling gloomy. His mom’s part is elegantly played in a sensitive portrayal with great depth by Jacqueline Bisset as Frances, whose presence holds the film together.

Why this film never caught on with the public is a mystery to me, as it played only on the Sundance Channel until its recent video release. This is the kind of film an intelligent viewer is said to be pining for. Well, here it is.

“Sleepy” seamlessly tells two parallel stories. One is about a free-spirited mother, Frances, who seeks to put her life in order after she comes down with a terminal illness. She still questions her decision to give up her baby daughter for adoption. Her daughter Rebecca (Martha Plimpton), whom she held in her arms after birth and never saw again, has been adopted by a success-oriented academic couple residing in Boston and has grown to be a successful corporate lawyer in a NYC blue chip law firm. But she is unhappy despite her obvious financial gains and feels lost without knowing about her past. The second story revolves around her search for her birth mother. She has been living with another Wall Street lawyer (Theroux) who works two blocks away, but since they both put in 70 hour work weeks their relationship is sacrificed. He tells her he wants to breakup while they both squeeze in a few minutes together on a park bench.

The middle-aged Frances, born under poor circumstances in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, used her good looks and wit to make something of herself, and always supported the underdog. She became a freelance writer, social activist, and a radio personality known in Florida as “The Sleepy Time Gal.”

The film begins in 1982 when Frances is relatively happy even though she is dying from cancer. Frances has been married twice and has two sons, one from each hubby, and an illegitimate daughter from another. She has been a negligent mother and knows little about either son–as she was always too busy with herself and her causes. She does not have the address of the son who lives somewhere in London and the other son, Morgan (Nick Stahl), is a polite, intelligent, sensitive young man who is gay and lives in San Francisco. He’s a starving, budding photographer forced to work at a minimum wage job in a photo copy shop. Frances also lives in San Francisco, but knows very little about Morgan’s life–and, she is probably unaware that he’s gay. She does like him and is not disappointed that he’s as broke as she is, but can’t resist nagging him. He can’t resist poking some mild jabs at her failings.

Martha is drawn to a job in Daytona Beach, Florida, where she was born but never visited. She takes a taxi to look at the hospital where she was born and then goes to the local radio station the company she represents has purchased in a merger and is restructuring the station by laying off all the current staff, as her job is to go over the contract and make sure everything is in order. This is a job that ordinarily a person with her senior experience wouldn’t do, but she feels something inside pressing her to be here.

The radio station serves as a way of connecting daughter and mother, without the daughter knowing that the photo of the Sleepy Time Gal in the studio is that of her mother. The station played rhythm and blues and was known as a “race station,” says its imposing owner and general manager Jimmy Dupree (Frankie Faison). He’s a black man who lived here through segregation and had opportunities to go north but chose to stay because his wife wanted to and because he had other women he loved including the jazz announcer, the Sleepy Time Gal, who broke his heart. He’s not sad about the deal, and tells Rebecca he plans to travel with his wife to Malaysia. Rebecca has a one-night stand with Jimmy, who does not realize that she is the daughter of the Sleepy Time Gal.

During Frances’ remission period, she visits the beautiful pastoral setting in the Amish country of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on the farm of a former lover Bob (Seymour Cassel) and his wife Betty (Peggy Gormley). He is the father of her daughter and would have married her if she wasn’t so set in not being tied down. They have been happily married for 30 years. But Betty has always known that her hubby could have easily married Frances. He has told her about Frances, though she doesn’t know they had a daughter. But she senses their feeling for each other is very strong. Frances feels uncomfortable about what to say, since she doesn’t know how much Betty knows. But she’s grateful for Betty’s warmth and acceptance of her, as they are meeting for the first time. It’s also plain that Bob still loves Frances, but the kiss they have as he drives her from the airport to his house goes no further. Frances experiences a temporary joy at being there, but flees the next day just like she has always done when anyone tries to come close to her. Betty is in the process of writing a book that fictionalizes a love story she imagines, which turns out to be pretty close to the truth about Bob and Frances’ affair.

At Frances’ deathbed she is watched over by Morgan and a private duty nurse, Maggie (Amy Madigan). She’s a difficult patient to deal with, but Maggie is so tender and caring and the two share secrets she could never tell anyone else. Frances also wants to keep the seriousness of her illness away from her mother (Zapata), who is in a nursing home. On a visit there with Morgan she dolls herself up and in a comical conversation among the three disconnected relations, it becomes apparent that Frances has little respect for her mother; though, she still tries to act decent. It was a very touching scene.

The Münch film touched on many sobering themes. One of the main themes was related by Martha, who says to Jimmy at an amusement park “So many things I haven’t done.” Her ambitious yearnings are similar to her birth mother’s.

The performances were brilliant, as everyone interacted so perfectly with one another. They do justice to the characters they are playing, so much so that they seem to become like family to this viewer by the film’s end. No problem is suddenly solved by the ending, but more clarity to their lives is obtained. Nick got to see his mother in a different light under duress and maybe his feelings of her as some kind of intellectual snob is softened. Rebecca learned who her real mother is, and though they never meet her search was not in vain. She also realized who her father was, as she read Betty’s book and connected the dots.

“Sleepy” is a captivating and intimate study about dying and loving, and touches base with the confusing times we now live in where it’s not uncommon to live in many different locations during one’s lifetime and to have more than one marriage.

The pensive Frances confides to Morgan “The life you lived isn’t always the life you hoped for.” To Bob she says, “What’s life but a shitload of missed chances?” But for Bob, life is “Hope realized. People loving people. A recognition of shared destiny. A willingness to move with things.” All the characters are thrown into the game of life even though they’re not fully prepared, and each tries to figure out what’s the best way to play it but with mixed results. What results is an unforgettable story that asks a lot of questions but supplies very few answers. It views life as an impossible experience made up of many unfulfilled desires. But what impressed me most is how the film got me to care about the characters, and that I liked them despite their flaws.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”