"Time Code," the latest exercise in adventurous moviemaking from Mike Figgis (director of last year's "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" and 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas") represents a fatally flawed experiment. As an innovative feat of daring vision and logistics, it's a marvelous success. But in terms of traditional cinematic values, it's a sadly disappointing failure: The storytelling is noticeably weak and tired. Melodrama is still melodrama, even when it's all dressed up in methodological finery.
For his eleventh feature, Figgis has boldly gone where no filmmaker ever went before, this time with the help of digital video. On Nov. 19, 1999, beginning at precisely 3 p.m., he and three other cinematographers simultaneously shot four interrelated, partially improvised stories. Each tale -- concerning various goings-on related to a Hollywood film studio -- was photographed in a single take. Call it scripted synchronicity.
The results are displayed in tandem on a screen that's separated into quadrants; the director helps us to "edit" what we're watching by increasing the volume of the soundtrack to the action he deems most important at any given time. The technique, which can't help but remind some viewers of the credit sequence on television's "The Brady Bunch," is initially intriguing, as the quadrangles come to life one-by-one. Later, the approach is a bit confounding. Which segment should we watch? And are we missing something important by momentarily focusing on a "secondary" image?
What's most astounding is how easy it is to become adjusted to the madness of the method. Woven together, the four strands of the narrative offer a kind of unity, as if we were reading several Raymond Carver short stories at once. Imagine, if you will, the separate narratives of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (which was based on a Carver collection) playing at the same time on a screen divided into four.
It's certainly a new way of thinking about cinema, and the technique itself is satirized during a funny, self-referential passage. Ana Pauls (Mia Maestro), a young, radical filmmaker, makes a pitch to Red Mullet Productions about her latest brainstorm: a production that's to be informed by the "new, new unity" of art and technology.
"It's time to move beyond the paradigm of collage," Pauls says as her boyfriend creates trendy dance music on his keyboard. "Montage has created a fake reality." Her solution is a film constructed, well, precisely like "Time Code."
The new reality, sorry to say, doesn't quite match the hype. The action begins in the upper right corner of the screen, as Emma (Saffron Burrows) talks to her therapist (Glenne Headly) about a bloody scene of some sort, perhaps one she's seen in a dream. We soon meet, in the upper left cube, the wealthy Lauren Hathaway (Jeanne Tripplehorn), seen letting air out of the tire of a car belonging to her younger lover, the beautiful, struggling actress Rose (Salma Hayek). The latter two then embark on an initially combative limousine ride. In the bottom left corner, Quentin (Julian Sands), a talkative, muscle-bound English masseur, arrives at the studio, and on the bottom right, a group of Red Mullet executives begin a meeting.
The plot -- or what little there is of one -- focuses on the bickering among Red Mullet honchos (played by a group of thespians that includes Holly Hunter and Steven Weber); Rose's role-getting efforts, including a sexual liaison with alcoholic executive Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgard) and an audition for harried indie type Lester Moore (Richard Edson); various episodes of coke snorting; and a final showdown between Rose's two lovers.
Several minor earthquakes literally shake things up, temporarily forcing an interruption in the constant but less-than-revelatory action. Too bad Mother Nature's wrath didn't result in each story spontaneously spiraling off into new terrain. "Time Code" -- ultimately mundane despite its conceptual audacity -- could have used that sort of trauma.