Here’s a little news worth sharing: Christopher Nolan does not shit solid gold. Like most people, he shits shit. Inception, for example.
Let me explain:
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusty sidekick, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his trusty sidekick, a can of Layrite) specialize in a unique kind of espionage: espionage of the mind! (I believe the exclamation point is legally required.) Entering the dream of the victim by means wisely left vague, they and the rest of their team trick the dreamer into revealing whatever secrets the client is paying to retrieve — plans for the big corporate merger, what have you. The act of inception is the more challenging process of planting an idea in the dreamer’s mind that will make him awake thinking the idea was his own, causing him to take a different path than he’d intended — breaking up his dead father’s giant energy company, say. But it can’t be done! Or can it!
All in all, I liked it better when they made this movie with Dennis Quaid.
Inception is the kind of movie that never stops throwing things at you, presumably in the hope that you won’t notice it’s really something very familiar: a heist movie. There’s nothing wrong with heist movies, of course, and as with any other genre, the quality is all in the execution. Just an example here, to give you an idea of how original the bones of this film are: Nolan wrote, then reviewed, considered, and retained the following line: “I just need this one last job.” You might have thought this line would be banned from heist films forever, but no. Only the taste and originality of the filmmaker stand between you and hearing that line over and over again. Instead of needing that one last job to set himself up on a desert island, or to get out of this crazy business once and for all, or to open an adorable bakery in Noe Valley, Cobb needs that one last score in order that he can clear his name of murder charges and return to the US and the two children he was forced to abandon (he murdered their mother — or did he!).
Is this more original or interesting than the desert island or the bakery? No, it’s just Nolan’s way of washing all the goings-on in a thicker-than-usual layer of sentimentality (while also allowing the game DiCaprio to basically replay his role from Shutter Island). Without the specter of lost children, Inception would have to rely on the development of its characters, earned emotion or, I don’t know, actual ideas, all of which are in short supply despite its 148-minute running time.
There are no bad movies, of course, only badly-executed movies. Inception is so loaded with potentially rich subject matter — the subconscious, regret, our need to delude ourselves, the yearning for lost love —that it’s easy to imagine this having been a good or even great movie. But between creating visual spectacle, teasing along the cheap emotion, and having his cast awkwardly explain what could have been confusing plot points, there’s very little time to make things cohere.
The problem is Nolan and his usual lack of subtlety. Is there a moment of actual levity in any of his films? I struggle to think of one. Inception has barely a single sustained minute when the ponderous, bass-heavy score relents and allows some tone other than doom and pretension; when any member of the cast unfurrows his or her brow long enough to convey something besides complete seriousness; when the pace of the film is anything but deliberate and plodding. Even when his story is little more than 10th-grade psychology wrapped around 8th-grade science, Nolan treats it as if it’s Einstein giving a college lecture on Jung. This approach served him well enough in his forays into comic book adaptations (the workmanlike Batman Begins and the painfully, infuriatingly, ludicrously overrated Dark Knight, the reputation of which is mostly driven by hysterical reverence for Heath Ledger, the hysterical reverence for whom is driven by his talent, but just as much by his early death), because we expect a certain juvenile self-seriousness from comic book adaptations. But seeing a Nolan movie is generally like eating at a mid-priced steak restaurant that serves nothing at all but steak. Steak is fine, even when it’s overseasoned and undertenderized, but Nolan seems to have no awareness at all that a salad is a nice tonal contrast.
But about that visual spectacle: it’s jaw-dropping. This is something you can’t take away from the man. To call Nolan a great architect of visually inventive action and grand imagination is an understatement. Inception creates dream worlds that are how we wish our dreams could really be, but still feel familiar, with their own logic and recognizable rules, all rendered with a unique visual flair that uses CGI not just to show off, but in service to the underlying idea. (To some extent, Inception’s dream scenes recall the mind-erasing sequences of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with the main differences being scope and audacity). Every set piece outdoes the last (at least until the final, climactic one, when even Nolan seems tired and confused about which characters are supposed to matter); and it’s only in the film’s second half that the pleasures of living in that world collapse under the accumulated weight of emotional incredulity.
When it comes to Nolan’s films, I find myself increasingly at odds with most of the rest of the world. I’m aware of this. Like Brie or helium balloons, the enthusiasm for his movies leaves me waiting for the moment when everyone cracks up and says, “Nah, just kidding. That shit sucks.” If anyone has a guess how much longer I’ll be waiting, please let me know.