Dream a Little Dream

Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

With its dreams, dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams, Christopher Nolan’s Inception manages to be clunky and confusing on four separate levels of reality—while out here, in this even more perplexing dream we call “life,” it’s being hailed as a masterpiece on the order of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Slap! Wake up, people! Shalalala! Slap!

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb (the name sounds like it should evoke something—but what? Dummkopf?), who specializes in plunging into people’s “subconscious” minds while they sleep and extracting their corporate secrets. (I’m with Freud in preferring “unconscious.”) But his new client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), wants the impossible: for Cobb not to steal an idea but to plant one in a business rival’s head.

Why is an “inception” more difficult than an extraction? “The subject’s mind always knows the genesis of an idea,” explains one character—which strikes my unoriginal and highly suggestible mind as dead wrong. But that’s the premise, anyway. Cobb accepts the job because he longs to see his two little kids in the U.S. and is forbidden to return on account of a Crime to Be Revealed Later; and Saito says that with one phone call he can make the legal problems go away. (He just can.) Then Saito says what in this kind of thriller are magic words: “Assemble your team.”

A team of colorful specialists! Cool! So it’s, like, Mission: Impossible in the Dreamscape-Matrix! Cobb’s point man is Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also evokes The Matrix: He looks like Keanu Reeves’s runty little brother. Eames (Tom Hardy) is the “forger,” who can impersonate people in dreams without those dumb M:I rubber masks. The chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), will create the badass sedatives that will hold the fragile three-dream edifice together. The brilliant architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page) has two functions: dreamworld designer and exposition magnet. She’s a newbie, so Cobb has to explain to her how the science works. It takes a lot of explaining.

Nolan, who wrote the script, thinks like a mechanical engineer, and even when you can’t follow what’s happening, you can admire in theory the multiple, synchronized narrative arcs and cute little rules for jumping around among different flights of consciousness. He has two fresh ideas. In a dream, you can fall asleep and have another dream, in which you can fall asleep and have another dream—except time works differently at different depths. A minute up top might be, say, ten minutes in the dream, an hour in the dream within a dream, and, below that, years. Although the different levels look the same (too bad), the gimmick allows Nolan to have three clocks ticking down instead of one, and the editor, Lee Smith, has cut among them in ways so ostentatious that he’s all but sewn up this year’s editing Oscar.

The other neat touch is the Freudian monster femme who keeps popping up: Cobb’s wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who emerges from his own unconscious (even in other people’s dreams) to sabotage his schemes. Cotillard is clock-stoppingly gorgeous and has a great first scene. She surveys the debris raining down with glittering eyes, laughing in delight. But after that, the tone of her appearances is funereal. Mal is the key to the mysterious tragedy that eats away at Cobb. Up top, in the waking world, Ariadne worries to Arthur: “Cobb has some serious problems that he has buried down there”—the sort of thing Tattoo would say to Mr. Roarke, who would nod and reply, “Well, on Fantasy Island, he will have a chance to confront them.”

Actually, Ariadne herself says, later, “You’re going to have to forgive yourself and confront her”—an empty line and the only kind Page gets. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t have much livelier material, but he does fight a bad guy in a zero-gravity corridor and tie together a group of sleeping people with cords, then float the human assemblage into an elevator. (I had no clue what he was doing, but it’s one of the few wittily irrational images.) Hardy starts amusingly, talking tactics for taking down “the mark” in the language of an empathetic therapist, but then turns as grim as everyone else. As that mark, a mogul’s unloved son, Cillian Murphy is so preternaturally sensitive you’re not sure what to think about what’s being done to him. You can’t tell from DiCaprio, who wears the same haunted face throughout. He’s excellent—he usually is. But he’s weighing himself down with guilt-trip roles.

Inception is full of brontosaurean effects, like the city that folds over on top of itself, but the tone is so solemn I felt out of line even cracking a smile. It lacks the nimbleness of Spielberg’s Minority Report or the Jungian-carnival bravado of Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape or the eerily clean lines and stylized black-suited baddies of The Matrix—or, for that matter, the off-kilter intensity of Nolan’s own Insomnia. The attackers in Inception are anonymous, the tone flat and impersonal. Nolan is too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie.

For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone. But I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and—hold on … Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype—a metaphor for itself.

Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is a genuine, all-enveloping bad-dream movie, and I’m still wrestling with its squirmy mix of grotesquerie and humanism, stylized camp and acid realism. It’s a sequel to Solondz’s queasy 1998 Happiness, a broad satire of Jewish-suburban life with a subplot about a doctor who molests little boys. Life During Wartime has the same characters but none of the same actors, and the tone and look are different—less glib, more malignant. Largely set in Florida and L.A., the film bears no traces of the natural world: Everything is artificially colored and overbaked. Jane Adams, who played the youngest of three warped sisters, has been replaced by Shirley Henderson, the gap more vivid between her twittery little-girl voice and withering demeanor. Lara Flynn Boyle’s husky-toned sexpot has aged into a drawn and twitchy Ally Sheedy. Cynthia Stevenson has been elongated into Allison Janney in full-tilt delirium. The male actors (Paul Reubens, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Lerner, Ciarán Hinds) either are ghosts or might as well be; they’re finished. Stars of David, flags of Israel, images of carnage in Gaza show up in the background, but they’re not belabored. Solondz conjures a world that’s rotting away from the inside, in which only the children—freckle-faced Dylan Riley Snyder and Emma Hinz—weep over the loss of moral authority. This might be some kind of goddamned masterpiece, but I’m not sure I want to watch it again to say for sure.

See Also:
Todd Solondz on His Latest Grim Comedy, Life During Wartime

Warner Bros. Pictures. PG-13.

Life During Wartime
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Dream a Little Dream