Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Dreams

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

While Inception ought to easily lay claim as the smartest, sharpest, most scintillating blockbuster entry of Popcorn Summer 2010, and further burnish director/writer Christopher Nolan’s growing reputation as the thinking cinephile’s Stevie “Wonder” Spielberg, it doesn’t quite generate the impact that would mark the film as an all-timer, although it is a crackling, mind-bending, whole-lotta-fun mainstream effort.

Inception is essentially a caper film, yet, the unfolding and depiction of the heist itself is something altogether different---the movie largely takes place in a series of dreamscapes, the elusive theft that the plot swirls around being a dream itself, sort of. Nolan, the rare director that actually melds his visual route into his thematic map proves himself an exemplary amusement park designer, and the movie’s pacing and bravura editing make it go by in a flash, despite its length.

Nolan’s methods and directorial preoccupations are easily evident in his praiseworthy catalogue, with all of his films, despite setting or time period, revolving around a morally compromised and obsessive male protagonist awash in a chaotic and often brutal society, pushing ever onward while wrapping himself deeper into his odyssey, plagued by doubt and a heightened past, forced to think quick and act quicker, with the end result—consistently reached through a Herculean utilization of instinct, memory, and improvisatory skills—a weirdly ambiguous goal-reaching. Nolan is a truly cerebral director of movie action, as the acute exposition and vividly memorable landscapes of Memento (‘00), Insomnia (‘02), Batman Begins (’05), The Prestige (’06), and The Dark Knight (’08) have already proven.

Caper films always depict a team of types brought together for the high risk job, and although Inception’s centers around breaking into an individual’s unconscious rather than the usual high security MacGuffin, a specialized squad still lines up. Brought together by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio),an edgy, psychological tight-rope walker who needs to the job in order to be reunited with his kids, this dream team consists of a newbie architectural student (Ellen Page), a stiff-lipped right hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a chemist (Dileep Rao), and all-around warrior with special skills as a “forger” (Thomas Hardy). Of course, there is also a mark, the son of a dying energy czar (Cillian Murphy), and a businessman client (Ken Watanabe) who insists on going along for the ride. Hovering in and above it all is the great love and late wife (Marion Cotillard) of Cobb, still hauntingly real in the world of dreams. The cast is first rate, and Nolan never allows them to get lost in the pure wallop of his ongoing visual and narrative joy ride, while DiCaprio manages to get some well-earned mileage out of a part that is weirdly close to his last bit of role-playing, as the emotionally tortured cop in last year’s Shutter Island.

Although the movie abounds in the type of pseudo-scientific speak that was the bellwether of multiple cheesy sci-fi movies, the players chomp into the expositional dialogue like actors knifing through the shards of pulp fiction interaction. Page, who gets saddled with the familiar position of the character put there to anchor the potentially bewildered audience, should be acknowledged for her ironic aplomb. No matter what grade Z line reading she has to deliver, she somehow remains above the obviousness, and her thankless role gains in stature as the movie burrows further down its own wormhole.

Nolan plays it all with a technical fluidity that refrains from the typical in-yer-face make-up of the vast majority of big budget genre pictures. He also wears his potent influences on his conjurer’s sleeve: weaving together elements of 2001, Blade Runner, Bond movies, maybe even (gulp) The Matrix, also marking his big screen territory with the various master scents of MC Escher, Freud and Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Inception is a visceral experience, with Nolan attempting and pulling off some thrilling circus tricks with his loopy dream-within-dreams narrative, and hair-raising editing, ultimately generating some uncanny and wondrous imagery while neatly poking away at the audiences’ sensory perceptions.

Give Nolan credit, he does try to add some psychological heft to his film with DiCaprio’s haunted past bleeding into every corner of the plot, but the movie just doesn’t quite succeed as a full-bellied emotional churner. Despite his obvious throwback talents, Nolan is not a terribly self-conscious filmmaker, so the partial disconnect doesn’t ever drag the movie down, although its overall impact is diminished by the lack of truly resounding inner plot. In the long run, Inception, despite it’s rumblings of emotional character depth, is essentially a impeccably plotted tumble through a movie funhouse, with perhaps a bit too much of juiced-up bang-bang shoot-em-ups.

Sure Inception might be ultimately disappointing, as it hints towards greatness but finally falls short, yet it’s a barnburner of a big budget summer fare, and it spins and tilts with splendid acuity. While it may lack a truly beating heart, the movie is a delightful head trip, a brainy thrill ride, and a technical tour de force. That’s hard to complain about, and much than a large portion of Hollywood fare usually has to offer.