No Concessions: “Inception,” Conception, and Other Mysteries of Life

There’s an upside and a downside to writing about a movie like Inception after it’s been in release for several weeks. The advantage, for me, is that you may very well have seen it, and that means, no plot summary—this should help.

The disadvantage, of course, is coming up with something fresh to say about a movie that’s now sunk to its third or fourth weekend of cine-dreaming, displaced by Steve Carell and Will Ferrell flicks. Truth be told, I have no earth-shaking, world-beating theory about “what it all means.” Maybe that’s where to start: For me, the movie was more Homer’s Odyssey than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the simple story of a guy trying to reunite with his kids, with a few modern touches. Like, you know, vans falling slowly into the water, and Paris folding in on itself, and other phenomenon brought to you via the miracle of parallel editing (get that Oscar polish ready, Lee Smith).

The whole infamous spinning top thing at the end? Just Christopher Nolan giving us a friendly little pat on the back as we lift our tired rumps from our chairs after all those dream layers over two-and-a-half layers: “Thanks for playing along, kids! Wake up, caffeinate, drive safely on your way home from the theater!” Something like that. I see the whole thing as sort of closed loop, if I’m in getting that right. (There are a lot of concepts in this movie that are vaguely threatening to a chump like me, who actually did better on the high school chemistry aptitude test administered before the course than the same test given afterwards, and who never made it to physics.) I can’t see Inception spawning reams of philosophical text, like The Matrix—or, praise be, bad sequels.

Nolan conceived the movie when he was 16, and it plays like the kind of a movie conceived by a 16-year-old. That’s not a knock, and I hasten to add that despite my misgivings about the filmmaker (which are to some degree misgivings over his adulation) I liked Inception well enough. I’m not sure I enjoyed it all that much; there’s more humor in it than its most severe critics will allow, but not a thimbleful over the minimum. It’s the sort of film that a brainy would-be writer-director would hatch at a tender age, and that he hung on to his, uh, dream, over the years is impressive. Our imagination, and our response to what others imagine for our entertainment, shifts over time, and perhaps contracts as the real world places greater demands on us. Nolan opens us up to his dream world, and we leave the theater feeling smarter for the experience. No small thing that.

What else leaps to mind? Well, Hans Zimmer’s score fits the movie like an exquisite black leather glove, and I got in on the ground floor with the whole Piaf jazz. (I still think there’s something to the whole “Heaven Have a Mercy” connection, which Zimmer has been mum on. Maybe, like a dream thief, I know his mind better than he does.) The name “Mal,” for Marion Cotillard’s ghost-in-the-machine wife, bugged me; it’s a real, if obscure name, but I think Nolan intended it to stand for “Malevolent” or “Maleficent” (as in Sleeping Beauty, which is sophomoric, and not as clever or as resonant as naming Ellen Page’s architect Ariadne). Leonardo DiCaprio centers the movie with his usual concentrated skill but after the more deeply affecting Revolutionary Road and Shutter Island (sort of the same movie, but different) I suggest incepting a script free of family angst.

But what do you all think? I found this unraveling compelling. Comments welcome. Wake me when you’re finished.

I’m not sure I’d make a good candidate for inception. For one thing, I don’t fall asleep that quickly, and I marveled at how fast the characters in the movie went under, with or without drugs. But if you could somehow incept me into a movie, to steal the precious little rattling around in my head, I suggest the scene in The Kids Are All Right where Annette Bening fixes a relaxing, lavender-scented bath for life partner Julianne Moore. Just slip me into the tub with Julianne, add Annette, stir in co-star Yaya DaCosta (a runner-up on America’s Next Top Model—runner-up, jeez, how much hotter could the winner have been?), and my spaghetti carbonara recipe is yours.

(I mean, really—daddy issues? Fortresses? Snowmobiles? The easiest way into a guy’s mind is through his libido. A porn spoof of Inception will no doubt pick up on this and get right to the crotch of the matter as a result.)

The Kids Are All Right isn’t a lesbian horror show, though, like The Hunger (we can always hope for an unrated DVD) or a tragic thwarted gay romance, like Brokeback Mountain. It’s a family comedy-drama, and an astute and funny one, that I happened to see as Proposition 8 went down in California, where the film is set. Not that the movie is at all political—its co-writer and director, Lisa Cholodenko, has made it very clear that she was making a commercial, audience-friendly film, and as my mom liked it I’d say she succeeded. The rougher affectations of her earlier indies, High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2002), have been sanded down, not that the movie, another standard-bearer for a good year for women directors, is entirely free of grit. Look at the faces of Bening, 52, and Moore, 49, as photographed without embellishment by Igor Jadue-Lillo: Lines, wrinkles, freckles.

Magnificent. I could gaze at stills of these two all day.

Life is not a bath of roses for Nic, the provider (Bening), and Jules, the nurturer (Moore), however. Their kids, college-bound Joni (Mia Wasikowska, obviously relieved to be doing some acting after the CGI pageantry of Alice in Wonderland), and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson, perfectly cast as someone named “Laser”) are all right, but Laser is curious about their shared sperm donor. Joni arranges a meet-and-greet with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a go-with-the-flow restaurateur who charms them with his guyness. When the moms learn of their secret meeting they reluctantly arrange a “family” get-together, with Nic clearly on the defensive. Jules, who chafes at Nic’s regimentation, sees the feckless interloper differently, and is thrilled when he becomes the first client for her latest stab at business, landscaping.

What goes on in the garden, however, disrupts the Eden of the family, in a socially observant, laughs-and-tears way that mostly works. The two actresses are as wonderful as they look, and form a tight, thick and thin bond with the younger performers. No issues, save for thorny, universal matters of the human heart.

I had one with the movie, and it’s with Ruffalo. He’s ideally cast as a flirtatious ladies’ man and the movie doesn’t have to explain Moore’s attraction to him. It has to work a little harder to explain why he’s emotionally resistant to the gorgeous DaCosta, who’s on his plate at the restaurant, but it must be said that the subplots are really sub here, and detract from the family portrait. My beef with Ruffalo is that he’s too damn appealing, which—spoilers dead ahead—messes up the film’s already smudged conclusion. Paul is handed an olive branch at the end, a small one that you may however miss. Casting a more obvious or shark-like actor might have worked better in this somewhat bumpy context, which Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg, to their credit, clearly wrestled with. That said we would have been deprived another irresistible turn; it’s fun watching the adults show little glints of the teens’ behavior, and Ruffalo is all right as the most overgrown of the kids.

Kevin Kline has my utmost respect and admiration as an actor, and, as if that’s not enough, an Oscar and two Tony awards. What he’s never had is a breakout career, earning the nickname “Kevin De-Kline” in the process. I blame the charms of New York, where he lives with his family and prefers to work. It can be a fatal attraction, however, as The Extra Man cautions.

The film is based on a novel by Jonathan Ames, whose ribald tales of the city were amusing to read in the New York Press but whose HBO show, Bored to Death, leaves me feeling just that. Narratives can’t live on quirks alone and The Extra Man, from his novel, is a positive quirkquake.

Stop me if you’ve seen this set-up before: A nervous young man, full of dreams and low on self-confidence, arrives in New York, falls in with some eccentrics, and emerges from his experiences as…a writer. It’s the template for half of the indies set and shot here, and the only adrenaline comes from what bizarre behavior will be displayed and which noted New York performers will enact it. Paul Dano, the soft-faced, mushroom-headed co-star of There Will Be Blood and numerous films of this type, is the naïf, a low-level magazine staffer with a Gatsby fixation and a yen for more assured co-worker Katie Holmes—not to sleep with her, but to be her, as his character, Louis, has cross-dressing issues. He also has money issues, which lead him to share a decrepit apartment with failed playwright Henry (Kline). Henry’s living, such as it is, is as a walker, an “extra man,” escorting dowagers to the opera and hoping for a few crumbs from the table. Fascinated by Henry’s scrounging, high-art lifestyle, the closest thing he can find to Fitzgerald in contemporary New York, Louis joins him on his nightly rounds.

The Extra Man reminded me a bit of The Baxter, a cult comedy about a Manhattanite determined to live a 20s life in the aughts, oblivious to the obvious changes. The difference is that movie is at least mildly funny, and sometimes much more; this one’s an underachiever, despite great effort from Dano (he and DiCaprio might think about switching careers) and Kline, who squeezes every drop of juice from his role as a sexless, sardonic “aristocrat,” one who pees on the sidewalk with courtly aplomb (I’ll have to try that sometime). There’s nothing more painful than watching a fine actor give his all to a losing cause (Marian Seldes and Celia Weston also go down with the ship, Patti D’Arbanville most valiantly as a mother hen “spankologist”)…except watching a fine actor like John C. Reilly put on a Dame Edna-on-helium accent to give a catastrophic portrayal as one of Henry’s hangers-on. Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini debuted with the ornery and winning American Splendor (2003), then fumbled with The Nanny Diaries (2007); I’d say they need to leave the city and rediscover their inner Cleveland.

Queue Tip:
Back in March I called A Prophet (un Prophète) “the first great release of the year” and its arrival this past week on DVD and Blu-ray confirms my opinion. As taut as piano wire the foreign-language Oscar nominee from France tells the story of a young Muslim’s indoctrination in Corsican-run prison culture, the dangerous education he receives from various mentors, and his stealthy takeover of the gangs using what he’s learned. I found the lessons enthralling, and gangster movie fans especially should pounce now that the movie, an arthouse hit, is more widely available. The excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio) is supplemented with ten minutes of worthwhile deleted scenes and a lively commentary (subtitled) featuring director Jacques Audiard, co-writer Thomas Bidegain, and the movie’s magnetic 29-year-old star, Tahar Rahim. Of particular interest are the screen tests and rehearsal footage, where Rahim, completely convincing as a teenager, comes on stronger than he does in the movie. At his best he achieves a perfect stillness in the film, and the extras give us some insight as to how he distilled his characterization.

Bonus Tip: This weekend’s Wall Street Journal has an appreciation of Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de…, one of my very favorite films. It’s not the kind of movie that you expect to knock you for a loop, but it does. Rent the superb Criterion Collection disc.




  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Forgot to link my sountrack review: http://popdose.com/cd-review-inception-music-fr

    Oh, and XANADU was released 30 years ago today. I thought you should know that.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I really enjoyed Inception. Does it make me feel smarter for having watched it? Maybe, but then I get into the theater parking lot, forget where I parked my car and I stir up a glass of instant dumbass again.

    What Inception does do, and the thing I appreciated the most, is that it actually asks for something from the audience. Go for the ride, play the game, hang on as we drop through the dream-levels. I appreciated the opportunity to be engaged versus the usual “shut up, eat the popcorn and laugh when the soundtrack stops to cue the joke.” Not that there's anything wrong with a movie like that in moderation, but lately it's been “autopilot comedy”, “talking animal movie” and “sadist gorefest” week after week. I appreciated that the makers of this movie tried.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Exactly. And audiences clearly aren't threatened by being asked, which keeps more movies like this from being produced.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I imagine modern movie producers are incredibly lazy people. If your pitch is more than a minute long and you can't immediately equate three box office hits from the last year with it, it won't get greenlit. It is only through Nolan's success with The Dark Knight that he could make this picture because all he had to pitch was, “Hi, I'm Warner Bros. golden boy Christopher Nolan.”