LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - "Before I Go To Sleep" is a risky title for a genre exercise intended to keep viewers bolt upright in their seats, handing mirthful critics a ready-made punchline at the first sign of lethargy. The good news is that Rowan Joffe's adaptation of S.J. Watson's 2011 publishing phenom is far from a snooze; the bad news is that it's the film's escalating, po-faced ludicrousness that holds our attention. Starring a typically hard-working Nicole Kidman as a short-term amnesiac unsure whether she's being played by her husband, her shrink or both, With David Fincher's similarly targeted "Gone Girl" already siphoning its buzz, this dopey diversion will need the novel's fans to turn out en masse to avoid being forgotten by morning.
A planned Halloween release Stateside -- weeks after the film's Sept. 5 release in Blighty and elsewhere -- might lead auds to expect an out-and-out frightfest, but for the bulk of its running time, "Before I Go To Sleep" is more of a psychological puzzle picture, reserving the would-be white-knuckle stuff for its final few reels. If it still fails to stir up too many screams, that could be because the narrative's complex network of holes is so apparent by that point that any real sense of peril is hard to sustain -- despite the quivery efforts of Kidman, an actress who has long done hunted fragility better than just about anyone in the business. Having already impersonated Grace Kelly in one bad film this year, she has a second bite at the cherry here: Her vulnerable, terminally addled but resourceful heroine Christine Lucas is essentially a terrorized Hitchcock blonde in more sensible shoes.
There's a Cary Grant substitute, too, in Colin Firth's stiffly affectionate, not entirely forthcoming husband figure Ben, on whose dulcet tones it falls to provide much of the initial exposition. Christine, it turns out, has suffered from anterograde amnesia -- that condition, long beloved of screenwriters, that prevents the formation of new memories -- ever since nearly losing her life in a horrific attack several years prior. Every day, she wakes to become freshly acquainted with Ben and the moneyed, minimalist house they share in outer suburban London; whatever new information she gleans during the day is wiped clean by morning, as her memory resets to a 20-year-old state.
What Ben doesn't know, however, is that Christine has been keeping a video diary at the behest of her psychologist, Dr. Nash (Mark Strong), a device that allows her some semblance of cumulative memory -- a higher-tech equivalent of the similarly debilitated Guy Pearce's Polaroid-and-tattoo method in "Memento." "Sleep" opens with her recording a particularly panicked bedtime entry before skipping back, as is de rigueur in mainstream thrillers these days, to the recent past. Nash calls Christine on a daily basis to reintroduce himself and remind her of the diary's existence. In this way, she pieces together fragments of her personal history that Ben, supposedly out of concern for her mental well-being, has kept from her -- notably her estranged best friend, Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), and, crucially, her departed son Adam, whom Ben claims was lost to leukemia some time after her accident.