'Inception': Dream Warriors, By Kurt Loder

Leonardo DiCaprio's on the case in Christopher Nolan's latest brain-tease.

Are they handing out joints at the box office for [movie id="419756"]"Inception"?[/movie] That would make the movie considerably more fun. Christopher Nolan's latest is a terrific-looking picture that bounds around the globe from Paris to Tangiers to Tokyo (among places that actually exist) in the wake of a freelance dream thief named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Cobb's specialty is infiltrating the dreams of corporate big shots and extracting their most valuable secrets. His latest assignment, however, is a little different -- a Japanese industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe) has hired him to implant an idea in someone's head that will allow Saito to take over a rival titan's business empire. Cobb's reward for achieving this goal: an end to his exile from the United States, where he's currently a wanted man, and a yearned-for reunion with his two children.

Right here you may wonder why anyone in search of secret information would break into someone's dreams, which are so often distortions of waking life, rather than their memories, which could be more straightforward recollections. But Cobb is not a memory man, so ... whatever.

Gearing up for his mission, Cobb assembles an A-team of dream-work specialists. There's an "architect" named Ariadne (Ellen Page), whose job is to structure dreams; a "forger" named Eames (Tom Hardy), who can pass for any other person in a dream world; and a "chemist" named Yusuf (Dileep Rao), whose drug concoctions allow penetration not only into dreams, or into dreams within dreams, but into dreams within dreams within dreams. There's also a fixer named Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose purpose is to handle details and look sharp in skinny suits.

As we see, the movie all but nudges us to notice that some of these characters' names refer to celebrated figures outside the story. But this is sometimes cute to no purpose. Eames displays none of the talents of a famed architectural designer, and an industrial heir named Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) offers no indication of a chess-master's cunning. Then there's Cobb's estranged wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who haunts his dreams and does her best to screw up his every plan: as her name unnecessarily denotes, she be bad. And what about Dom Cobb himself? Is his unlikely moniker meant to suggest Dummkopf, the German word for a dope? That would seem counterintuitive. *

Many of the movie's effects and digital manipulations are spectacularly imaginative, especially a sequence of weightless action in a rotating hotel corridor, the unexpected arrival of a huge train in a scene without tracks, and the startling sight of a long boulevard peeling up off the ground and rising to double over on itself. These eye-popping amazements are much-appreciated in a story that goes on and on for two and a half hours, with Cobb and his team flashing back and forth disconnectedly from one dream level to another, occasionally touching down in reality (whatever that is). Each of the dream-invaders carries a "totem," an everyday, real-world tchotchke that tips them off as to whether or not they are in fact in a dream, either their own or someone else's. As the dream levels and their far-flung locales piled up and intermingled -- a collapsing Japanese mansion, a bullet-pocked snowscape, an exploding Parisian street -- I wished I had a totem myself to keep track of what was going on.

Unlike Nolan's exceedingly clever 2000 film, "Memento," which was a devilishly complex mystery, "Inception" is basically a complicated heist flick -- there is no mystery to ponder and penetrate. Cobb's goal is clear from the beginning; we spend the rest of the movie attempting to parse its many confusions as he attains it. Nolan says he spent 10 years obsessing over this story (the script is only the second one he has written on his own), which may explain its central problem. Despite its technical brilliance, and its fine cast (Hardy is clearly a star, and DiCaprio brings an emotional depth to the tale that is nowhere else in evidence), the picture is a puzzle palace with far too many rooms. The director himself may have gotten lost in it.

(* This paragraph has been amended to delete two errors. As a few readers have noted, the Ariadne of Greek mythology is associated with the tale of the Minotaur's labyrinth, which makes her name an appropriate fit for the maze-making character played here by Ellen Page. This is a fact so well-known that even I know it, although only on some deep sub-basement level of my brain, clearly. Critic Kyle Smith also points out that the name Browning, which I mistook for a poetry reference, could relate to Brownian motion. After a necessary Google consultation, I see that this is plausible and possibly probable. Thanks to all more eagle-eyed than me.)

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