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Review: Inception

Set the snooze alarm
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 24, 2011
2.5 2.5 Stars

 

Inception | Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan | with Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, and Lukas Haas | Warner Bros. | 149 minutes
A haggard agent, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is plagued by hallucinations of his wife and children while searching for the truth about a hospital for the criminally insane. . . . I'm sorry, that's Shutter Island. Where was I? If Martin Scorsese's headscratcher wasn't convoluted and implausible enough for you, Christopher Nolan's vast, cerebral puff pastry might be more to your liking. Or maybe you'd agree with the homeless guy in the bathroom who, after the screening I'd attended, said, "Too fucking long and too confusing!" Kind of like life itself.

But this is a movie, an elaborate construct of illusions designed to extract money from paying audiences — or, in more ambitious cases, to implant something in their imaginations, such as a moral or a fantasy. Or a product placement. How like the line of work of our hero, Cobb (DiCaprio), since he and his colleagues extricate secret information from a target by entangling themselves in a deceiving dream. (The mechanics are little vague, but they involve a suitcase with IVs and a defibrillator.) Or a dream within a dream. But a dream within a dream within a dream, which is what is needed to insert rather than extract an idea — that's risky. Only Cobb has ever managed to do that (and Luis Buñuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and that only once — and, boy, did it screw up his marriage.

Now Saito (Ken Watanabe), a big mucky-muck of some sort, wants him to try it again. If he does, Saito will pull some strings so Cobb can Go Home Again. Kind of like Dorothy, except with kids instead of Auntie Em. Cobb's assignment is to get Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a huge multi-corporation, to break up his old man's monopolistic empire and so restore the free-enterprise system or something (maybe it's part of the new finance-reform bill).

So Cobb puts together his Mission Impossible Dream Team, which includes, among others, a colorless Ellen Page as Ariadne, the dream-weaving "architect" and voice of reason who asks helpful questions like "Now whose unconsciousness are we going into?" But the key to planting the idea in Fischer's brain, as any political-campaign director or studio marketer can tell you, is to simplify and reduce it to its emotional lowest common denominator. In Fischer's case, that would be his "relationship with his father."

Okay, so Nolan hasn't exactly broken new ground about the nature and meaning of dreams. It's all Freud 101, what with the Oedipal business and the elevators and endless staircases and safes holding mysterious, "Rosebud"-like revelations. But give the director credit — nobody else I know of has parallel-edited sequences taking place simultaneously in three (four? five?) different levels of consciousness.

True, these involve for the most part some kind of chase or explosion, or a battle against the "trained projections" of the victim's subconscious, projections that are armed with automatic weapons and engage in Matrix-like acrobatics. Personally, I got more thrills out of the simple animation of Richard Linklater's Waking Life. Inception does best when it focuses on its own most disturbing idea — that dreams reveal nothing except that life is not a dream.

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