Saturday, July 17, 2010

INCEPTION: The verdict

So, I've been building this one up for a while, as have many critics and movie buffs. See one of my previous posts for my explanation of why I was so eagerly anticipating this film. Basically, the director (Chris Nolan), and several of the actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Cillian Murphy) have all been involved in prior favorite movies of mine, so I felt like this was a "can't miss." At the same time that this notion led me to have grandiose expectations, it simultaneously forced me to lower those expectations, because how could I not be somewhat disappointed after already anointing Inception the movie of the year? Bottom line: it was not the epic film I was hoping it would be, but it also was not as much of a letdown as I feared it might be.

I'm going to describe very little about the plot, so as to not spoil things. The film centers around Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), who is a thief-for-hire; his specialty is inserting himself in people's dreams in order to pilfer their ideas for his own (or, presumably, his employers') gain. He has a team of skilled assistants: his long-time right-hand man, Arthur (Gordon-Leavitt); Eames (Tom Hardy) - who can shapeshift himself to take on the physical characteristics of another person; Yusuf the chemist (Dileep Rao); and, for the latest job that serves as the focus of Inception, new hire, Ariadne (Page) - who is an expert architect saddled with the challenge of creating the landscapes of the dreamworld in which all the action takes place. In the movie, a Japanese tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), hires Cobb and his team to pull off an "inception." This is an instance where the team must insert themselves into someone's subconscious, not to steal ideas, but to plant them. Saito wants to trick a business rival, Robert Fischer (Murphy), into wanting to break up his dying father's business empire, effectively giving Saito a stranglehold on the worldwide energy industry. Inception is a highly dangerous and unpredictable undertaking, and no one is really sure whether or not it can be achieved without dire consequences. The motivation for Cobb is that he has been prevented from seeing his two kids back in the U.S., and Saito claims to be able to rectify this situation, upon Cobb's successful completion of the mission at hand. To explain any further would be inadvisable.

One thing has to be said above all else: you will not understand this film after one viewing. I, myself, am contemplating whether I want to shell out the cash for a second go. I probably won't see it again until it's on cable, but just keep in mind that anyone writing a review after seeing it for the first time needs to reserve the right to change his or her views on the film.

That having been said, let's start with what was great about Inception. There likely will not be a more creative, imaginative, or original movie out this year. Also, DiCaprio was pretty spot on in the lead role. Sometimes, I have a hard time taking him seriously, because he still looks so young, but he's a formidable enough actor that he seems to often be able to make me forget about that and become engrossed in the character. This is at least true for the last four films in which I've seen him: The Departed, Blood Diamond, Shutter Island, and now, Inception. Third, I usually prefer movies that are thought-provoking. If I'm still talking and/or thinking about a film weeks after seeing it for the first time, then that automatically wins some points in my book. I am positive that Inception will be such a film. Lastly, the ending was pretty much perfect. I've written before that one of my pet peeves with cinema, is when Hollywood simply doesn't know how to wrap everything up. There is a tendency in those situations to either try to tie all the ends up in a nice, neat bow, kill off almost every major character (see the hideous Mel Gibson flop, Edge of Darkness, from earlier this year - or, on second thought, don't see it), or create a final scene so ambiguous that it's just plain annoying and unfulfilling (hello, No Country for Old Men!). All throughout Inception, I was 100% positive that I knew exactly how it was going to end, and I was dreading the cop-out, predictable conclusion. And Nolan did end it that way...sort of. He put enough of a twist of uncertainty on the otherwise foreseen closing shots to win kudos from me. I can't describe it in any more detail without giving critical things away.

Now, for what didn't work. First and foremost, naturally, is the overall ambiguity of everything that occurred in the film. Thought-provoking and creative: good. Brain-melting mindfuck: not so good. The average filmgoer simply can't keep track of all the reality-bending layers of plot that Inception throws at us. It makes for an interesting experience, but at the end of the day, we kind of want to know what in the Hollywood Hills is going on. One aspect of the film that has been repeatedly ripped by critics, is that Ellen Page's character, Ariadne, basically serves as a point of exposition for the audience (exposition is when the writer deliberately utilizes the dialogue to explain the story - typically a major no-no in creating a quality film). The fact is, though, that without some exposition, we'd be even more lost. It was simultaneously necessary, yet detracting from the artistic integrity of the film.

Secondly, Ellen Page, as much as I love her, was grossly miscast here. Ariadne, in addition to untangling things for the audience, also served as a confidante and conscience to DiCaprio's Cobb. The character needed to be much more strong-willed and dominant, in my estimation. Like DiCaprio, Page's cross-to-bear is her youthful looks, but being 12+ actual years younger than Leo, it's much more of an obstacle for her at this early stage of her career. Seeing Juno in this movie was simply unsettling. What's more, DiCaprio and Page had virtually zero on-screen chemistry. I didn't believe for a second that they cared one iota about each other (not in a romantic way - that, thankfully, was not what the filmmakers were trying to depict). In fact, the entire "team" of dream invaders felt like it was just patched together, rather than being a tight-knit group of highly-skilled comrades. I just never believed that they were working together because they wanted to be.

That leads me to my next issue. I felt the supporting characters were rather under-developed. When you have a team of players moving the story forward in what basically amounts to an action-thriller, you need to have really sharp writing in order to keep the audience interested in each character. That simply wasn't the case here. Eames (Hardy) was designed to be the wise-ass, sarcastic guy. Yet, he had virtually no funny lines in the entire film. As for Arthur (Gordon-Leavitt), it was unclear to me exactly what role he played on this team. He's been described in other reviews as the "organizer." But I really had no idea what his place was, and generally didn't care about his character at all. They tried to construct one funny scene between him and Ariadne, but it fell somewhat flat.

Another supporting character, that of Saito, presented one significant problem; I could understand virtually nothing of what Ken Watanabe was saying during the entire film. I don't know if it was his Japanglish creating the problem or if he was simply mumbling his lines, but I was unnerved by this the whole time. There were some pretty crucial lines of dialogue that I missed completely.

Overall, Inception was one part action flick, one part heist film, one part psychological thriller, and one part love story. Those last two elements worked...the first two did not. Some of the action-oriented scenes, particularly those set in the snowy mountains toward the end, were just plain boring and confusing. And I was not invested in the caper involving Cillian Murphy's character. The whole thing surrounding Robert Fischer and his domineering and unaccepting father, Maurice (Pete Posthlewaite), was a retread of all the daddy issues we've seen time and time again in film...and these characters were barely even relevant to the most compelling parts of the movie. For me, the love story between Dom Cobb and his wife, Mal (and by extension, with their two kids), was the aspect of Inception by which I was most captivated. Mal was played with perfect sadness, regret, and desperation, by Oscar-winner, Marion Cotillard. This thread was almost a sub-plot, but it was the most dramatic and compelling layer of the film by a longshot. It provided the emotional center of Inception, and served to set up the few genuine plot twists, as well as the craftily-handled ending. I almost wish that Dom, Mal and their kids had been the main focus, with all the other acid-trippy stuff serving as the decorative wallpaper for the film, but I'm not sure how that would have turned out.

In short, Inception is a good film, falling somewhat short of great. Some are saying it is Chris Nolan's masterpiece. I say that accolade still belongs to Memento, a film that likewise, takes the viewer on a mind-boggling journey of what's real and what's not, but that in my opinion, pulls it off with much more flare, and stands as one of my favorite movies of all time. 

I would recommend Inception, again with the caveat that you will be confused, and potentially be compelled to see it more than once. Overall grade: B+

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