‘Inception’ is absorbing and provocative, but probably not a masterpiece
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The noise for the summer’s most anticipated movie is starting to hit a crescendo, as Warner Bros. prepares to release Christopher Nolan’s warped-reality action picture “Inception” this weekend.
We’re not critics here at 24 Frames, so no review in this space -- look for The Times’ critical take later in the week in the paper and on our website. But given the level of interest in the film, and the fact that everyone and their therapist has begun to offer their online assessment, we did want to react to some key elements in the film. Because this isn’t a review, we’ll leave plot details out -- apart from noting the basic premise of a dream-invader (Leonardo DiCaprio) who tries the difficult feat of implanting an idea in someone else’s mind -- and also assume you either know many of those details already or don’t want to know any of them at all.
What we will say is that “Inception” is an impressive movie with notable flaws. On a purely visceral level, the film is an exciting experience. Nolan creates a fully (sometimes overly) realized conceptual world and pairs it with intricate visual detail. His cinematic method for literalizing dreams -- hardly the easiest trick in the handbook -- looks spectacular and feels accurate. Elaborately devised and conceived, “Inception” achieves the primary aim of all big-budget films: it takes all that money and puts in the service of a deep and sprawling vision, the kind of combination that can, at least on a surface level, make for a fulfilling time at the movies. Few films slather on so much conceptual ambition while delivering this much effects firepower. Subjected, however, to more rigorous analytical standards -- and given how much exposition and explanation Nolan offers in the movie, he’s kind of inviting that analysis -- it can be a murky and flat time. This is a film that commands a lot of admiration but doesn’t produce a commensurate level of enjoyment. “Inception” is engrossing, but I’m not sure if that’s because its mysteries are so rich you can’t take your eyes off them or because they’re thrown at you so hard and fast that you pay close attention mostly out of a sense of anxiety. Each new rule, each new plot point, each new explanation of this world is conveyed with such urgency it can feel that to miss any one of these details is to miss the entire film. After a while, all these rules and wrinkles work against “Inception”; with every new card Nolan piled on the tower, I found myself caring just a little bit less about what he was building.
Plot points aren’t the only thing in great abundance here. Nolan is drawing from an eclectic toy-chest of influences, with “The Matrix,” the Jason Bourne movies, “Being John Malkovich” and even David Lynch’s films just a few of them. In Nolan’s own canon, the movie, both thematically and tonally, harks back most to “Memento,” especially in how the director frames DiCaprio’s relationship with a wife who may or may not be gone; in how he uses overlapping chronologies to produce suspense; and, most conspicuously, in the film’s preoccupation with the blurry line between false memories and the real thing.
Still -- and we never thought we’d write these words -- “Memento” is a simpler story. Where the joys of that film lay in deciphering its complex but clean mysteries, “Inception” comes from a more head-trippy place. While figuring it out is part of the fun, too much fidelity to that cause can be more headache-inducing than pleasure-producing. David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” is applicable here -- sort of. Lynch is a surrealist creating a surreal world, but Nolan is a rationalist creating a surreal world, and while it’s admirable that the young auteur is trying to create something that’s so whimsical but also so logical, those twin goals work at cross-purposes. The director spends a lot of time making your head spin while also trying feverishly to have you understand how he’s spinning it. Parts of “Inception” feel like listening to that wild-eyed philosophy student you may have known in college -- he’s so infectiously enthusiastic and blindingly smart that you can’t but be drawn to him, and yet you don’t always know what he’s talking about, and deep down you sometimes wonder if he knows either.
“Inception” also stumbles a bit in trying to create a sense of melancholy. Emotional notes are struck hard in the film, but whether it’s the cacophony of ideas and sights drowning them out, or just a lack of facility on Nolan’s part, they don’t resonate with the power of other lost-spouse genre movies, including DiCaprio’s own “Shutter Island” or even, in a different vein, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Synecdoche, New York.”
Given some of these issues, it’s interesting to see the outpouring of such unadulterated critical love. All taste is subjective, but it’s fair to wonder whether there’s something else powering critics’ frothy embrace. Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman once speculated that the reason end-of-the-year dramas get so much critical praise is that it’s the one time on the calendar when reviewers have the chance (and space) to evaluate serious movies. So they let loose with all the compliments in their storehouse. It’s just a theory, but a similar dynamic could be at work here. As critics have been forced to sit through a barrage of “Prince of Persia” and “Eclipse” and “A-Team” screenings this summer, they may feel extremely relieved (we know we were) upon seeing this movie, and unload all the praise they’ve kept in reserve. The film scratches a very particular itch at a time that few films are scratching anything at all; “Inception” is cinematic Calamine lotion amid a swarm of mosquitoes.
It’s a noble and well-intentioned impulse, lending one’s authority to a movie with such ambition, but I also wonder if collectively it does “Inception” a disservice. No film should have to bear the weight of this much expectation.
Indeed, it’s easy to read all this flattery and say that we should all keep it all under control -- this movie isn’t “Citizen Kane,” though weirdly enough, there’s a return-to-childhood moment in it that practically pays homage to that movie (you’ll know it the second you see it). That doesn’t mean “Inception” is on par with the Orson Welles classic. Instead, what Nolan has done is make a narratively ambitious and coolly stylish film that’s fun if you just kind of sit back and let it wash over you, but that still contains no small number of shortcomings.
Judged by the most elemental of summer-movie questions -- should I go see it? -- the answer is a resounding yes. By the significantly higher standard of modern masterpieces, however, “Inception” falls short.
-- Steven Zeitchik
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