Trouble in Mind

07/14/2010 1:00 AM |

Directed by Christopher Nolan

In olden times, motion pictures about the traumatic past often took the gratifyingly efficient form later dubbed film noir. Director Christopher Nolan takes noir’s doubt-racked structures as the starting point for sprawling exercises in fractured tale-telling and vaguely tony design. A lesser effort on a grander scale, Inception continues these devotedly analogue adventures in perception (Memento, The Prestige, comic-book bat-sagas): here, mercenary Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hired to change a corporate scion’s mind by staging elaborate action set pieces in the man’s dreams.

“True inspiration is impossible to fake” runs one line in the verbose run-up, in which Cobb’s team (an unmemorable bunch joined by kid therapist Ellen Page) explain the marketing-theory-esque rules of dream infiltration. Recent models for Inception include Dreamscape/Nightmare on Elm Street, Total Recall, Bond tourism, Bourne therapy, and The Matrix (the last one almost more for the spirit of pop pastiche, but without the same satisfaction). As Cobb and Co. enact schemes at several levels of the subconscious belonging to Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), it’s an action filmmaker’s equivalent of mallification. Offering four movies in one, Nolan fugues between a truck hurtling off a bridge in slow-motion, the obscure invasion of an ice fortress, aerial acrobatics in a hotel, and the troubled netherworld of Cobb’s harpy-haunted marital past (starring Marion Cotillard, falling short of Michelle Williams’s Shutter Island shade act).

At its best, the excess lends a pleasing sense of freefall that’s fundamentally cinematic in its spectacular appeal, like a Griffiths triptych or Pastrone mobilization, but meagerly conceived despite all the gab (and shy about the illogic that makes dreams compulsively relatable). In Inception, the channel-switching episodes are chaotic and often pointless, though not in a dreamy way; lucid dreaming works except when it doesn’t; and Nolan is too busy plate-spinning to bring shape to any people but Cobb and Fischer (with Tom Berenger’s bit as Fischer consigliere more promising than all of Ken Watanabe’s real-time-forgettable turn as the magnate who hires Cobb). All too often there’s the sense of perpetual build-up, like being trapped on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or a David Copperfield set (at one point, Page’s “Ariadne” even showily rolls out two giant mirrors on a Paris portico when learning the ropes from Cobb).

What Nolan (the dastardly lit major!) still can do is spark constellations of thought experiments after the movie ends, even if, like an Analog sci-fi short story, the execution may be wanting. I love seeing a Parisian boulevard doubled over like a folded pizza slice as much as the next guy, but more interesting was the premise’s alternately amusing and terrifying materialist view concerning psychological motivation and the mind generally. Solely dismaying is the continuing evidence that VR’s tenets and pile-up visuals have become internalized without being developed, leading to hobbled storytelling and filmmaking. And in the endless chatter of explanation and exposition, Inception can feel, depressingly, like a fiction constantly trying to justify its existence.

Opens July 16