SURELY YOU ARE ACQUAINTED with someone so self-obsessed that they do little but complain about the state of their lives and nitpick every little problem they have until everyone around them wishes they would die in a flaming catastrophe of self-pity and narcissism. Well, if for some reason you just can't get enough of that person, there's a new movie out to remind you just how charming humorless self-absorption can be.
Wide Awake is the latest output from Alan Berliner, who is responsible for the maddeningly egotistic 2001 film The Sweetest Sound, in which he gathered all the Alan Berliners in the world at his house for a dinner party. Despite the dozen-plus guests that occupied the movie, the subject matter was firmly the filmmaker himself, and the film was comprised mainly of montages of strangers responding to questions like, "When you hear the name 'Alan,' what kind of person do you imagine?"
Wide Awake is about the director's chronic insomnia, and to a lesser extent, how much his family seems to hate his persistent self-obsession. Berliner hasn't had a good night's sleep in decades, and spends most of his days tired, whiny, and grouchy. Once he decides to make a movie about this fascinating condition, he goes off the deep end and drives everyone (including this reviewer) mad with his poor-me navel-gazing on the subject. A typical scene is an infrared shot of Berliner lying awake in bed with a voiceover wondering, "Why does everyone else know how to sleep—except me?" Uh, dude. Nobody gives a shit.
Woody Allen cultivated and perfected (and eventually overkilled) the worrying narcissist persona on film, and Ross McElwee demonstrated that documentary filmmakers can successfully foreground themselves in their movies. But what each of these directors achieves, and what Berliner fails to grasp, is that this only works when two conditions are met. (1) The subject ought to be a prism for some issue larger than himself, and (2) it doesn't work when the central ego is entirely without charm.