Inception makes just enough sense in just enough places to be a fun puzzle, and Marion Cotillard adds emotional depth. Watch our JV movie reviewer struggle against the temptation to make jokes about dreams. Does he make it to the end? You’ll see.
It’s a delicate thing to make movies that people understand well enough to like, but not quite well enough to vanish unremarked and unnoticed. Do it right, and people will talk about your movie for years. Do it consistently, and your career is made forever. In 1999 my favorite movie was American Beauty because of what it Said about Things, plus I was experiencing a Thora Birch phase. But no one talks about it now except to make jokes about whether there is, indeed, so much beauty in the world, because ultimately it was a little simplistic. Donnie Darko, meanwhile, was a spectacularly intricate puzzle of a movie from around the same time, filled with Gyllenhalls and paradoxes. But because true understanding of that movie requires a Ph. D. and the DVD commentary, it’s lucky it even got seen at all.
Meanwhile, The Matrix (which I initially disliked because, for example, seriously what was that mirror blob thing) has spawned a tiny library of books about philosophy and religion and still carries remarkable memetic currency. Not only that, but I can now quote the entire thing verbatim. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain. Along the same lines, Inception succeeds despite not making any damn sense because just enough of it makes just enough sense to engage, but not overload, your analytical brain with a thoroughly original diversion. Where it leaves The Matrix behind is in emotional heft, which is due almost entirely to Marion Cotillard’s nightmare-inducing performance. I’m serious. The night after I saw the movie I was woken up by a Cotillard Inceptimare.
Inception sets up as a classic heist movie. There’s a crime too perfect to resist, a gang that must be recruited and trained, some planning to be conducted, and an old timer wanting to pull just one last job. But instead of Cloonzing around with nine other thieves, ringleader Dom Cobb (Leonaro DiCaprio, looking like he may have finished puberty finally) and sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ditto) insert themselves into other people’s dreams to steal their private thoughts. As per the Heist Movie Official Handbook, the “one last job” is more ambitious than anything the gang’s ever done before, and, just as naturally, a new member must be recruited to the gang so that the rules of engagement have a reason to be discussed out loud by the seasoned pros. Sticking to an established formula is one of the many smart choices writer/director Christopher Nolan makes. Unlike his previous films, this one eases up just a smidge on the storytelling innovation.
Then again, this easing up on storytelling innovation happens at the expense of just a little bit of storytelling. New crew-member Ariadne (Ellen Page, who has been done with puberty for quite some time, thank you very much) is brought along mighty quickly for my tastes, and much potential for humor and experimentation with the rules of the Inceptiverse (not to mention any hint of real romance) is trimmed out of an extremely lean second act. And it’s not as though very many questions get answered about how this whole thing exactly works.
But it’s hard to blame Nolan for rushing exposition a bit. When you have a luxurious 90 minute Matryoshka doll of a climax in your movie that you’ve been slow-roasting in your brain for a decade, you can’t dick around letting everyone learn everyone else’s last name and favorite food. After all, the fun part of the rollercoaster isn’t where you go uphill.