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On 'Inception': Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Posted by Ty Burr  July 28, 2010 10:40 PM

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inception.pngI realize I'm the last critic on the planet to weigh in on "Inception," but I actually was on a desert island in the middle of nowhere for two weeks, so cut me some slack. (Well, off the coast of Maine and there was a ferry, but still.) And there's something to be said for re-entering the culture just as it's recoiling from the impact of a heady pop explosion. Anyway, it was interesting to come in late on the chatter-curve, and to see the movie after most people had made up their minds about it rather than before, as is usually the case for a working film critic.

My immediate response was a dazzled appreciation of the film's fiendishly complicated narrative structure, followed by a slow cooling off period as I realized the movie isn't really about anything beyond that structure. What I genuinely love about "Inception" is not its metaphysics but the way Christopher Nolan visualizes them: The Russian nesting dolls of dreamed worlds, each with its expanded sense of time and contracted physical possibilities; the freefall in one state leading to weightlessness in the next; the detonation of the "kick" echoing up the chain of consciousness toward something like waking. 

And yet: Dreams within dreams within dreams -- kewl! And? Depressingly, there is no "and," which wasn't the case with "Memento," the Nolan film that's closest in spirit to "Inception." (That one dances backwards and forwards in time while the new film drills deep down before resurfacing through its many levels. Next Nolan should tackle a story that requires him and us to move conceptually sideways; then he'd have covered all three dimensions.) "Memento" was a tragedy about identity and memory, how the former relies on the latter to string itself into a fragile chain of existence and how easy it is to wipe both away. "Inception" is... a heist movie.

A fascinating heist movie, true, and one that works out most of the variations on its theory before spinning to a halt only because movies have to end sometime. Yet I never felt the wracked angst of Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb the way I did Guy Pearce's Leonard in "Memento," maybe because the awful confusion of losing one's memory has real-world resonances whereas plummeting through levels of another man's dreams doesn't. (Or maybe because this performance can't help feel too much like "Shutter Island 2.0") Crucially, "Inception" never establishes -- or even wants to establish -- a waking reality that would make the death of Cobb's wife hurt the way it's supposed to. Ironically, I connected more emotionally with Marion Cotillard's Mal, a dream abandoned by her dreamer and filled with the rage of Medea. Her name carries an echo of mal-ware, which makes me wonder if Nolan might be a better writer of code than of human beings. Certainly "Inception" unfolds at times like genius software, revealing new apps and ideas with each push of the movie's buttons and ours.

What keeps it from turning too cold to handle is Nolan's knack for finding smart, agile actors who can respond to and heat up his baroque notions. That wasn't the case with "The Prestige," in which neither Christian Bale nor Hugh Jackman had the wit to get the movie off the ground. (And I shudder to think what "The Dark Knight" would have been without Heath Ledger as its galvanizing force of anarchy.) The heist genre requires a director to cast for individuality in numbers, though, so we get marvelous players like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in what appears to be the thankless role of the hero's No. 2 -- only the actor uses his lean grace and our memory of what he has done in other movies ("Brick," "(500) Days of Summer") to hold our eye until the payoff comes: a fight scene that plays out as zero-gravity ballet.

Ellen Page turns up in a different sort of thankless role, the character who has to Explain It All To Us. But Nolan disguises the pure functionality of Ariadne's dialogue by writing it so she's really explaining Cobb to himself (we just get to listen in) and by pitching the excitement of her speeches to the character's ongoing discovery of the strange new world she finds herself in. Page is brilliant at conveying the joy of thinking on one's feet, and despite a weirdly heavy make-up job -- it's like they started to glam her up then stopped halfway -- the actress is the movie's emotional anchor, which is to say its heart.

But wait, there's more: Tom Hardy, the devil of "Bronson" himself, bringing his swagger to the proceedings as the master of disguise Eames -- he should be heading up this mission rather than the tremulous Cobb -- and an unrecognizably grizzled Tom Berenger as the subject of Eames' impersonations. During my vacation I watched "The Big Chill" with my kids, and it was with some kind of shock that I vainly searched Berenger's face in "Inception" for the bluff insecurity of his unmacho TV star in "Chill."

Oh, and Cillian Murphy as the heist team's mark: I kept wondering at his grounded blue-eyed prettiness in "Inception," curious as to how Nolan was intending to use it, and then, when his character opens the final safe door to that wide-angle shot of his father's deathbed, I understood. The image is straight out of the finale of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," as a bedridden Dave Bowman nears his end within the alien monolith. And you won't find a currently working actor who more resembles Keir Dullea in "2001" than Murphy.

2001.jpg

The final shot of "Inception"? It's a cheap shot, and one that feels like a sop for the most credulous audiences: Laser Floyd stoners and the like. I guess it's the only way Nolan can end things, though. To finally cop to some sort of waking life would wreck the movie's delicate balance; it's only when we come back to reality that we start questioning what we've dreamt. The director doesn't want to let us go, because the moment he does is the moment we'll see that dreams don't actually work like this, that the human subconscious is trickier and less literal than the unstuck genre sequences -- car chase, hotel suspense, Alistair McLean-style mountain assault -- that riffle through Cillian Murphy's sleeping head.

Or maybe -- and I'm more willing to buy this -- that final shot of the top spinning, spinning, the cut to black before it topples (if it does), is just a reminder that movies themselves have been our established communal form of dreaming for over a century now, a sanctioned public trance state to which we surrender with eyes open. If "Inception" is a metaphor for anything, it may be this: The rabbit hole we dive down whenever we buy a ticket into the dark and the wondrous unrealities we've encountered there.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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