oh so smart

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

-Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey

Christopher Nolan is very smart. With Inception, he makes a more complex, exciting and complicated thriller than Memento, which catapulted him onto the scene. And while I enjoyed this movie very much, I hope he goes back to simpler movies like his underrated first film Following. Now, being smart isn’t a bad thing. He was the perfect director for the adaptation of The Prestige, for example, and with Inception he keeps our brains tied in knots keeping track of levels upon levels of dreams twisting in upon themselves, distracting us like a master prestidigitator.

Some have mocked the movie, comparing it with the ’80s horror flick Dreamscape. I liked that film, and how it used the concept of invading your dreams as the ultimate violation. In Nolan’s take, you can’t “wake up dead” like you did if they scared you to death in Dreamscape. It’s much worse: they are hired to invade your dreams to learn your deepest secrets, for corporate espionage, blackmail, or worse. The movie begins in a dream, where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are seeking a Japanese energy magnate’s innermost secrets, and it can be debated that it ends in one. We quickly learn that Cobb has secrets of his own that keep him away from his family and force him to make a dangerous living plundering the dreams of the powerful, where failure leaves you as an undesirable witness who knows too much.
What makes the movie work is that at its heart it is a heist film, something Nolan loves. The stunning opener to The Dark Knight was his previous attempt, and someday he can direct one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Cobb gets offered “one last job” that will wipe away the sins that keep him from going home, and he assembles a team to do the impossible- to implant an idea, rather than steal one. He reaches out to his father-in-law Michael Caine, who lends us his classic theatrical upbringing to lend an air of believability to the fantastic world Nolan builds, and gets him in touch with Ariadne, a student even better than Cobb himself, who will craft them a labyrinthine dreamworld to entrap their victim’s subconscious. The fact that Ellen Page’s character is named after the mythical queen who helped Theseus defeat the minotaur in Minos’s maze should not be overlooked. The movie is perfectly enjoyable without delving deeper into the meaning of her name, Cobb’s totem which keeps him centered, and the movie’s last shot, but it can lead to many interesting conversations for those who like discussing the what-ifs.
Tom Hardy plays a grubby “forger” who specializes in impersonating people in dreams, and he nearly steals every scene. JGL gets to shine here, and after this movie he’s perfectly believable as a covert operative. He steals a kiss with panache that would make James Bond envious, and performs a zero-gravity grappling contest that would grant him a salute from Jason Bourne. According to IMDb, he performed all his own stunts for that scene. Impressive. Nolan perhaps keeps the movie too well grounded in reality, but we are in the dreams of businessmen, after all; we can’t expect too much creativity. This isn’t What Dreams May Come, with its amazing landscapes, but we do get a stunning shoreline that re-imagines the Cliffs of Moher (best recognized as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride) built of crumbling skyscrapers, tumbling into the waves like melting glaciers. One stunning shot after another keeps us riveted to the screen, so we don’t tie our brains in knots trying to figure out the complex details of Nolan’s house of cards. We see M.C. Escher’s paintings of Penrose impossible objects brought to life; this is what special effects are made for.
I’m not the biggest fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, but here he does a great job. It’s the first time I wasn’t distracted by his boyish looks, seeing him as a little kid playing grown-up games. He does a great job, and I was quite impressed by the entire cast. Marion Cotillard has perhaps the most thankless role; Ken Watanabe and Tom Berenger lend grit and testosterone with the aged edifices of their visages, and both Cillian Murphy and Dileep Rao (the medium from Drag Me to Hell) are excellent in their roles.
Part of me felt that the movie was too clever for its own good. But then I thought about the last shot, and the music that plays, and I like what Nolan did there. So perhaps it’s me who’s being oh so smart, instead of oh so pleasant, trying to pick apart this story set in an Escher painting instead of trusting the fact that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s a movie I will definitely watch again, because its secrets, like those in The Prestige, only draw you in further.

4.5 mobius strips out of 5

© 2010 Tommy Salami

2 thoughts on “oh so smart

  1. Tommy, I was happy to read that you mentioned an Escher painting because not enough critics/bloggers have been referencing his work while writing about Inception. The trick stairwells came right out of Escher's work!

  2. Of course! Escher! I can't believe that didn't even cross my mind. Worst art student ever. Haha. Anyway, I enjoyed this review – I definitely need to watch Inception more than once. I saw it on an Imax sized screen and actually felt motion sick. =\ Oh dear. That was the only thing I didn't enjoy about it. ;]-Andi

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