Writer/director Mike Figgis has mastered a kind of style I usually mistrust: Jumpy and almost free-associative, it begs to be dubbed "arty." At Figgis' best (say, Leaving Las Vegas), this mercurial mode can be sensationally effective, allowing him to leap from one supreme expression of extreme emotion to the next without any Cassavetes-like vacillations. But in Figgis' latest, One Night Stand, he uses it to dress up a stunningly banal story. Wesley Snipes plays a successful L.A. TV-commercial director and family man who spends a magic night in New York City with a mysterious beauty (Nastassja Kinski) and then realizes that the rest of his life has become a sham.
Kinski plays a demure, high-class dame with a taste for Beethoven and for Nina Simone. There's no way Snipes' shallow, perky wife (Ming-Na Wen) can compete with his memory of her: Wen's idea of cultural enrichment is a sex-help video. As if that weren't enough to send a sensitive guy into a nose dive, he worries about the value of his career; after all, he was once considered "the most promising director on the Lower East Side." To cap it all off, his best friend, a New York performance artist named Charley (Robert Downey Jr.) has contracted AIDS. Charley counsels the unhappy sellout to carpe the old diem.
Downey gives a barbed, full-tilt performance, by far his best work since Chaplin; it's not the actor's fault that the music gets misty and holy while he lies dying or that Charley returns to advise his buddy even after he dies. Figgis composed and selected the music, and though on the soundtrack album's liner notes he says he feels "it has an equality, even a superiority, in some instances, to the image," his choices are erratic -- it's great to hear the Juilliard Quartet play late Beethoven, boring to hear Bach's Air on a G String for the 5,000th time. What's annoying about the movie is that all the eclectic volatility on the surface can't hide the neat conventionality at its core. Kyle MacLachlan brings grace notes to the thankless role of Charley's ultrabourgeois brother, but he, Wen, Snipes, and Kinski end up in a square dance in every sense of the term. Irvin Kershner handled a commercial artist's midlife crisis more deftly and honestly 27 years ago, in Loving; by contrast, One Night Stand (based on a no-longer-credited Joe Eszterhas original) seems like the work of the most promising director on the Lower East Side.
-- Michael Sragow