Ever since 1976's "Carrie," we should all have learned to check the background for eerie clues that reality might be taking a bumpy ride. (Remember that climactic scene that seems so real until you realize the cars and people in the background are going backward?)

In Marc ("Finding Neverland") Forster's stylistic, ultimately empty "Stay," starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling, we get a similar tip-off. As psychiatrist Sam Foster (McGregor) walks along with troubled patient Henry Letham (Gosling), students pour out of an auditorium behind them in strange groupings: They're wearing matching clothing or carrying the same briefcases.

Unfortunately, that's the movie's subtlest touch, and, even worse, the backgrounds tend to outmatch the characters or the story. Sam's personal mission to stop art student Henry from committing suicide on his 21st birthday (just like his favorite 19th-century artist did) is just grist for repeddled psychological artiness. That mind-bending, mystical business was better handled in such films as 1990's "Jacob's Ladder." Watts, who plays Sam's artist girlfriend, is, narratively speaking, pretty much a decorative fifth wheel. When the movie finally "explains" everything, there is no relief, just a visually beautiful, yet completely unfulfilling, conclusion on the Brooklyn Bridge. Remind yourself not to jump. It's only a movie.

-- Desson Thomson

Psychiatrist Sam (Ewan McGregor) must stop a student from killing himself in "Stay." Naomi Watts stars as Sam's girlfriend.