It’s hard to separate Forty Winks from the story behind it: Will Parker, the son of actors Mary Louise Parker and Billy Crudup, wrote, directed and produced the film at age 17. He relied on a micro-budget, with threadbare sets and just seven days to shoot. His cast features a few big-name actors — Susan Sarandon and John Turturro — around whose busy schedules he had to work during his limited shooting schedule. The film is black-and-white because he couldn’t afford someone to time the color.
Knowing where it came from, it’s hard not to grade of it on a curve. He was only 17? He did it all himself? That seems impossible. It’s impressive. Doubly impressive is that it’s actually pretty intriguing in its own right despite some tonal issues and a few creative choices that don’t necessarily work.
Fabio Berker (Justin Marcel McManus) is a hypnotherapist. At least, so he says. He runs a small agency where he offers services to desperate clients who have run out of other options. Sometimes he scams them. Rent is hard to come by in the hypnotherapist biz — especially when you blow a high-profile talk-show gig while live on camera. It doesn’t help that many of his clients seem to think he’s full of shit. Eventually, Fabio finds himself pulled into the orbit of a mysterious woman, Connie Montoya (Susan Sarandon), who blackmails him into a simple job that goes haywire. Suddenly Fabio is the world’s first hypnotist hitman.
The “hypnotist hitman” high-concept is a fascinating one, but it’s worth noting the film isn’t really about that. Most of the running time is spent following Fabio through his pretty pathetic life. Despite the big names on the cast list, McManus holds the entire film together with a lovely performance that prevents Fabio from becoming entirely unlikable. He resorts to bad behavior to make ends meet, but he’s simply likable enough to forgive him his trespasses. “His life was a mess,” the narrator says. “He made some bad decisions on the way.”
Speaking of the narrator: Hart Bochner (known most for his role as Ellis in Die Hard) provides a droll narration that feels inspired by Hugh Ross’s work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It doesn’t quite work, oftentimes popping up to tape over the gaps in the actual narrative. He exposits story points that needed to be shown and explains characters’ emotions when the actors should be doing the heavy lifting. It’s the sort of narration that feels grafted onto the footage to create coherency to the final result of a production without the luxury of reshoots. Maybe it’s exactly that. Even with that in mind, it’s the weakest element of the production.
Taking into account the fact that this is a shoestring production, however, it’s worth highlighting Will Parker’s production design. Although some scenes take place in what appear to be pretty nondescript settings, a large amount of the film is spent in Fabio’s office, which has an off-kilter minimalist visual style that I appreciated. It’s a choice that works. Another artifact of the low-budget production is the audio design, which, frankly, is mostly not great … but strange in a fashion that worked for me in the end. It may not have been intentional. If not, it was at least properly salvaged to feel additive to the film’s overall odd aesthetic.
Forty Winks had a successful festival debut last year and is now playing on Plex TV. It’s hard to find information about it without knowing Will Parker’s story, but the highest praise I can give the film is that it feels like the type of film that doesn’t need to be viewed as a curiosity. Sure, most viewers will go in wondering just what a 17-year-old filmmaker was capable of producing. I’m hopeful, though, that someone will find it late one night, enjoy it on its own weird merits and then later feel impressed that somehow a kid managed to make it work.