To Ream the Impossible Dream
Dimensions interweave; matter twists in physics-defying contortions; and entire worlds crumble as time stands nearly still in “Inception,” Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated, hugely ambitious summer daydream. Plunging headlong into the subconscious, the filmmaker’s “Dark Knight” follow-up offers a labyrinthine journey into the heart of the contrasts between what we are and what we perceive ourselves to be.
A cerebral puzzle with a narrative lodged firmly in the mind’s recesses, “Inception” should be commended for the ease with which it operates outside the standard summer-movie box. Freudian archetypes and complex notions of the awesome power of an idea are not exactly the stuff of your everyday Hollywood entertainment. Among the A-list crop of studio filmmakers, Mr. Nolan stands alone for the ease with which he melds imaginative form and content, producing movies that offer singular experiences.
Yet Mr. Nolan gets so wrapped up in the logistics of his various dreamscapes and the technical details of dream sharing and inception, that the picture all but abandons its most essential thread. The film stabs and hints at an overarching humanist sensibility, but never fully, viscerally brings it to life. The emotional truths behind the quest of protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to navigate his way through complicated, dangerous cerebral fantasias are lost; the motivating thread shredded to forced bits and pieces interspersed throughout the various layers of action.
Treading lightly, the heart of the picture concerns Dom’s ardent, foolhardy attempt to reunite with wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and children. Complicated matters: A past indiscretion has made him a fugitive from justice in America and, according to Dom’s right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Mal’s dead. The path Dom takes toward putting together said improbable reunion involves corporate espionage and hijacking dreams, dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams.
Were the movie to fully live up to the high standards of its conception, more would be needed from Mr. DiCaprio. Here, he offers his characteristic intensely vulnerable, tough-guy-with-a-damaged-side shtick, at almost the precise pitch of his work on “Shutter Island.” That he treads along the same determined, focused line makes Dom seem less of a sympathetic character and more an archetypal example of Mr. DiCaprio doing Mr. DiCaprio. The part demands an actor more equipped to bring a fresh, relatable approach to the melding of vanity with an intense, emotional undercurrent to make interesting human choices without succumbing to the elaborate conceptual maze.
The relationship between Dom and Mal, the conceit upon which the picture’s emotional engagement lives or dies, is played out in half-baked memories, conversations tinged with elaborate psychological ramifications and a highbrow sensibility aimed squarely at the mind, not the gut. A burst of genuine feeling from Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Cotillard might have compensated for the overt intellectualization of what should resonate on a simple, meaningful level, but the latter is swallowed whole by her character’s ever-changing shades. One learns next to nothing about the drone-like characters played by the rest of the supporting cast — including Mr. Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and the terrific Tom Hardy — who are too obsessed with the challenging methodology and processes of their jobs to let the audience in.
Still, one can’t help but admire the magnitude and scale of Mr. Nolan’s vision and the fearlessness with which he bends the usual rules of narrative arc and flow. “Inception” is the world’s most expensive concept-art film, a picture that demands multiple viewings to fully, meaningfully unpack its vision of the subconscious mind’s vagaries and predilections. As staircases angle up toward the heavens and Mr. Gordon-Levitt flies through the corridors of a hotel that’s part Hollywood boutique, part modernist behemoth and time suspends across dimensions, it’s hard not to be awed.
Sadly, when it comes to the people swept up in this intricate world, it’s equally hard to care.