With Inception, director Christopher Nolan proves without question that he is one of Hollywood's most captivating filmmakers, even despite his movie's flaws.
In the months leading up to Inception's release, I have avoided all commercials, trailers, plot spoilers, and reviews. I still haven't read any of my colleagues' thoughts on the film in the hope that my opinion could be as completely pure as possible. With that in mind, here we go...
Inception (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Like other cultural phenomena -- such as the World Cup, Radiohead, or Barack Obama before he became president -- one of the hardest things about liking Christopher Nolan is that you have to defend him against both his critics and his most slavishly worshipful supporters. A polarizing figure because his films are so critically acclaimed and so commercially successful, Nolan faces the same problem that directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese must endure: He inspires such passionate response (both positive and negative) that it can feel awful lonely to be an ardent admirer who wants to separate himself from the salivating fanboy throngs whose adoring reverence is painfully dull and not very insightful.
Inception won't settle any arguments between the "pro" and "con" camps, but it's such an extraordinarily ambitious work that it's getting harder to dismiss his achievements. Even when this film stumbles on occasion, its clear problems never feel like a loss of nerve or, even worse, laziness. For those who have been hoping that Nolan would save Summer 2010 the way he saved Summer 2008 with The Dark Knight, Inception is above all a triumph of risk-taking amidst the Hollywood blockbuster mentality. There are sequences in this film that are simply astounding, and not just because they're technically stunning. No, they're bravura because they reveal a filmmaker who seems wholly dedicated to putting on a show that shoots high rather than settling for low. Even when Inception doesn't work, you may find yourself forgiving it because you want to see where Nolan will take you.
In a way, he's always been a showman. Though characterized as cool, brainy and aloof in interviews -- being half-British certainly adds to his public persona -- Nolan has specialized in mainstream thrillers, whether they were for a mainstream studio or not. After his low-budget debut, 1998's Following, and its rousing follow-up, Memento, Nolan has focused on Hollywood movies that have been marked by their insistence on moody, elegant stories. At his weakest, his uneven magician period drama The Prestige, that quality of cold-blooded intelligence works against him, opening him up to charges that he's so pleased with his own smarts that he seems less concerned with our enjoyment. Be that as it may, though, it's a testament to Nolan's skill that, despite my own serious misgivings about The Prestige, I know of at least two people who think it's the best thing he's ever done.
Regardless, it was the Batman films where he showed just how potent a brooding, intelligent approach could be for a moribund franchise. Well-cast, superbly written and displaying respect for an audience's desire for an adult ride, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were singular filmgoing experiences. Compared to so many other cumbersome tent-pole movies, these films felt special as they rolled along, and you could sense the theater audience slowly realizing just how unique they were. We've been conditioned to assume that the year's most-hyped studio releases will be destined to be letdowns, and yet Nolan's Batman films soared, as if to say, "You know, these types of movies can be really good if you just try."
So it's no surprise that Inception comes bearing the weight of high expectations. Nolan's braininess can turn off people, who will surely be waiting for him to fall flat on his face, and his new film's intricate design and self-important tone are such that it could be high folly if it failed. But unlike The Prestige, Inception is a warmer, more satisfying parlor trick, no matter that it leads with its smarts.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a man who runs an elite team of memory thieves. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Arthur as his right-hand man, Cobb enters into the dreams of his target, stealing valuable thoughts from his or her unconscious. Unable to return to America to see his small children after an incident involving his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb is approached by a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) for a job; if Cobb succeeds, then Saito will pull the right strings so that Cobb can finally go home.
I don't want to say anything more about the plot, but suffice it to say that the movie operates on several different levels of waking and unconscious states, which sometimes causes the characters to question their reality. Thankfully for a movie so wrapped up in dream states, Inception doesn't get bogged down in the sorts of "Is it a dream?" suspense that you see in bad horror flicks and B-movies. Inception is Nolan's first sole writing credit since Following -- he usually collaborates with his brother Jonathan -- and while the film's hard-boiled dialogue can be a little clunky in contrast to the smooth, elegant production design, it's interesting to note how emotionally resonant the film becomes, especially since Nolan has often been pegged as a chilly storyteller.
As the film's marquee name, DiCaprio is perfectly suited to be paired up with Nolan since he too carries a certain amount of negative baggage; in his case, it's from his days as a young Hollywood pin-up who became the world's foremost heartthrob after Titanic. (You could say that both men are victims of their own hype.) But as he did in Shutter Island and Revolutionary Road, DiCaprio here expertly plays a man who thinks he's fully in control of a situation that he's sadly ill-equipped to handle. For years, the knock on DiCaprio is that his baby face keeps him from projecting the right amount of maturity or gravitas for adult roles -- a fair criticism with The Aviator -- but of late he's made this seeming disadvantage work in his favor. Cobb is a guy whose uncertainty shows on his face, even when he's trying to appear confident, and DiCaprio generates real pathos from that duality.
Blessed with an Oscar and gorgeous features, Cotillard was without question eventually going to migrate to Hollywood movies, but since her breakout role in La Vie en Rose, she's played love interests who have had to fight to draw our attention away from the main characters. But as in Public Enemies and Nine, she displays a steely side in Inception that gives her small-but-important role real heft.
As for the rest of the cast, it's a bit more of a mixed bag. Gordon-Levitt is rounding into shape as a charismatic, weighty actor, while Cillian Murphy's performance as the target of Cobb's latest heist reminds us that he simply doesn't get enough substantial film roles. Ellen Page moves away from her ironic-hipster mode a bit as the team's new "architect," but unfortunately Watanabe doesn't have enough of a character to play, which is the same that can be said for Tom Hardy (of Bronson fame) as another member of Cobb's gang.
From the simplest of plot descriptions, Inception sounds like an egghead, high-tech version of Ocean's Eleven, and while that movie (along with The Matrix and the James Bond/Jason Bourne films) have been used as comparisons, one of the strengths of Inception is that Nolan doesn't seem to be trying to up the ante on any of those franchises, although in some ways he clearly has. With its thrilling, sometimes physics-defying sequences, Inception is nothing short of a technical marvel. (Added to that is Hans Zimmer's spectacular score, which repeats the dark themes of his Batman work, while adding new levels of haunting poignancy to the mix.) But while the below-the-line talent all does top-notch work, in truth the film gets a lot of its jolt from its juxtaposition of epochal special effects and slightly familiar story beats. Despite its bravura staging and visual panache, Inception is at heart a film about a guy haunted by a mistake from his past who has to do one last big job before retiring. Some of the film's themes will be recognizable to those who've seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Shutter Island, but as he's been doing from the beginning, Nolan revels in being a sleight-of-hand artist, distracting and disorienting his audience while laying the groundwork for big surprises at the end of the show. Inception is a bit overlong at 148 minutes, but I couldn't tell you what I would have cut out of it. Its flaws are wrapped up in its strengths, and considering that Nolan is working the Hollywood beat better than just about anyone else out there right now, I'm almost inclined to assume that he knows better than I do. Which is perhaps the film's greatest trick of all.
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