by GEOFF GEIB
Is it me or is Christopher Nolan finally starting to have fun? With a body of work now rivaling the best contemporary directors, it’s possible to take a step back and view his filmography as a whole, and early on especially, one does not find a pattern that would induce much in the way of a smile.
Nolan rose to notoriety with the strenuously entertaining and relentlessly grim Memento, then moved a step back with Insomnia before charging forward with the skillfully made but preposterous The Prestige sandwiched between his first two entries into the supergeek hall of fame, the sensational superhero films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the latter being one of the very best films of 2008. It was clear we were dealing with a talent– the confidence level seemed to rise with each effort, and his films are chock full of grandiose notions, brimming with swagger, and there is an ever-increasing mastery of technique.
It was not clear, however, outside the bravura performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, that Nolan had the ability to sweep an audience off its feet. Could he force the audience to meditate on the nature of identity? Time and time again. Yet thoughtfulness and technical mastery are often distant runner-ups to that which serves our simplest appetites, and an easy comparison is the work of Kubrick, who cannot get four reviews deep without the word “genius” popping up, but how many more are left cold by his precision?
Inception begins a new chapter for Nolan, a style we have not yet seen from the man. The movie is at its core a superbly executed piece of filmmaking, all the more so for all the talk-talk-talk that we’re subjected to as the story moves inexorably towards ambiguity, but it is the thrill of the filmmaking itself that elicits a smile all the while. This is swashbuckling cinema, a departure from the grim, often excessively somber nature of Nolan’s earlier work and a dive straight into the deep end of excess. It’s like watching a John Woo film for the first time, not really believing that someone can be so earnest and solemn and yet at the same time create such joyful cinema.
Nolan’s exuberance crashes through the screen, shotgunning ideas and actors and philosophy and slow-motion beads of water at the audience and wouldn’t you know it, most of them hit the target. It’s the sly misdirection of the moment, the rapidly escalating action with an eye towards the impossible and the sense of wonder that seems to envelop the characters that cannot help but bleed into the sensibility of the film as a whole. We’re left with size and scope that boggles the mind but always kept in check by the affectations of the second bananas– when Joseph Gordon-Levitt smiles, it’s as if the whole world is smiling with him.
Nolan earns more points by having the fortitude to follow the film to its natural conclusion, but in doing so, he invites the logical and uncomfortable question certain to be posed by the film’s detractors- just what was the point? The ending validates all that has come before it, demands to be done perhaps, but when all is said and done, are we left with subversive sentimentality or a more rote thematic consistency?
The film will be loved by most, but those who hate it (and there will be negative responses) will have a comfortable ledge to perch on for the film ultimately refuses to take a stance, it is cinema by omission. By embracing its true nature, Inception must necessarily deprive the audience of that which most films take for granted, a concrete point of view, and in this it is perhaps at its most audacious, for who in today’s multiplex world will stand up and say at the beginning, “over the next two and a half hours, you the audience are all going to be hornswoggled,” and then actually have the stones to follow through with it! A few perhaps, but not many.
Nolan has grand ambition, an admirable quality, and if there was any doubt of this after The Dark Knight, it is put to rest with Inception. He aims high, he challenges the audience, he wants his movies to be rich and thoughtful, and while I’d give anything if he’d just cut the running time of his movies down by ten minutes, it’s hard to argue that the man is not successful in his endeavors.
So how long do I have to wait for the next Batman movie? I’m already checking my watch.
3 1/2 stars
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