Bad Dreams

Nolan bewilders again with Inception

At the movies, incomprehensible gibberish has become a way of life, but it usually takes time before a bad movie really stinks. Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest assault on rational coherence, wastes no time.

Director-writer Nolan is an elegant Hollywood hack from London whose movies are a colossal waste of time, money and IQ points. “Elegant” because his work has a crisp use of color, shading and shadows, “hack” because he takes an expensive germ of an idea and reduces it to a series of cheap gimmicks.

Like other Nolan head scratchers—the brainless Memento, perilously inert Insomnia, contrived illusionist thriller The Prestige, idiotic Batman Begins and mechanical, maniacally baffling and laughably overrated The Dark Knight—this latest deadly exercise in smart-aleck filmmaking makes no sense whatsoever.

Like bottom-feeder Charlie Kaufman, Nolan’s reputation as an arrogant maverick draws a first-rate cast of players, none of whom have an inkling of what they’re doing or what this movie is about, and all of whom have been seen to better advantage elsewhere. Especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who remains one of the screen’s most gullible talents. After his recent debacle in Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s dopey insane asylum bomb, one hoped for something more substantial from the easily misled Leo, not another deranged turkey like Inception. He should have stayed in bed.

I’d like to tell you just how bad Inception really is, but since it is barely even remotely lucid, no sane description is possible. Let’s see. It opens with crashing waves on a beach. In the middle of a July heat wave, I wanted to jump in, but the thrill didn’t last. Cut to the battered face of Leo. He has come from another location conjured up in a dream, and is fond of muttering jabberwocky such as, “I am the most skilled extractor of dreams.” In other words, he can close his eyes, enter somebody else’s dreams with his pock-marked baby face and blow up China.

The excellent Marian Cotillard—who has spiraled down from her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose—is the ghost of his ex-wife. Leo lives in a state of guilt for her death. He is also a thief, plowing his way through dark kitchens waving guns with silencers to relieve locked safes of their contents. Living in a continual dream state, all he wants is to get home to his father (Michael Caine in a walk-on of fewer than a dozen lines) and two kids, but first he must, according to the production notes, “extract valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state when the mind is at its most vulnerable.” To this end, Nolan works in something about the world of corporate espionage that turns Leo into an international fugitive. Now, Leo and his team of special “extractors” must achieve “inception”—meaning that instead of stealing dreams, they must plane some. If you’re still awake, you’re one step ahead of me.

Leo is aided by a college student (Ellen Page) with a kinetic knowledge of dream therapy who acts as a “brain architect,” a loyal assistant ( big waste of charismatic Joseph-Gordon Levitt) who floats through space without gravity, a two-fisted barfly (Tom Hardy from Guy Ritchie’s abysmal Rock’n’Rolla), and assorted villains who sometimes double as saints (Tom Berenger, Cillian Murphy and Japan’s Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai). The script is jabberwocky: “We extracted every bit of information you had in there.” “I’m not in your dream—you’re in mine!” Every new dream brings to life a new picture postcard. One minute they’re flying over Manhattan. The next, they’re heading for Buenos Aires by helicopter. In Mumbai, they join people sleeping on cots in a sort of opium den where the patients pay to wake up. “I’m getting off in Kyoto,” says Leo, leaving the bullet train, and I wanted to shout, “Take me with you—and the movie, too!”

Through the use of computer-generated effects, buildings fold like cardboard, cars drive upside down and the only way you can wake up within the dream is death. You never know who anyone is, what their goals are, who they work for or what they’re doing.

Since there’s nothing to act, the cast doesn’t bother. Ambushed by mercenaries or broadsided by a freight train, it’s the easiest kind of movie to make, because all you have to do is strike poses and change expressions. I have no idea what the market is for this jabbering twaddle—probably people who fritter away their time playing video games.

Nolan labors over turning out arty horror films and sci-fi action thrillers with pretensions to alternate reality, but he’s clueless about how to deal with reality, honest emotions or relevant issues. Inception is the kind of pretentious perplexity in which one or two reels could be transposed, or even projected backward, and nobody would know the difference. It’s what we’ve come to expect from summer movies in general and Nolan’s movies in particular, but I keep wondering: Can he do anything of more lasting value? He’s got vision, but creating jigsaw puzzles nobody can figure out and using actors as puppets saying idiotic things, dwarfed by sets like sliding Tinker Toys, doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment to me.

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