I disagree with IOZ’s review of Inception almost entirely. I think Inception is the smartest action movie that’s come out in years*. I think the tension and pacing are handled masterfully, such that a 2h28m movie never feels boring. Chris Nolan is this generation’s Hitchcock, and I don’t toss that out just because “Hitchcock” is a big name in movies. Nobody handles big-budget suspense half as well as he does.
But IOZ touches on one uncomfortable truth: Nolan’s movies are losing their humor. Consider Memento, his breakthrough release. Sure, it’s another grim tale of a man driven by his inner demons to wreck his life and the lives of those around him. But Nolan breaks the tragic arc with frequent bursts of laughter. Some of it comes from Joe Pantoliano, a brash comic-relief character who’s more than he seems. Some of it comes from Guy Pearce’s dry regard for his own situation (“I’m chasing this guy … no, he’s chasing me”). And it’s not as if a man with anterograde amnesia solving a murder mystery is an inherently funny premise. It sounds like a nightmare. But Nolan adds humor with such a deft touch that you know it’s deliberate.
After that came Insomnia, a remake, with Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Duff. It’s not quite as funny, but we still get a few laughs at small-town America and Pacino’s inability to cope with it. There’s humor, but not as much of it as in Memento. And a lot of it comes from the bad guy – the dark humor of cynicism, rather than a lighter chuckle. Consider Williams’ taunting phone calls to Pacino, or his interrogation with Pacino in the room. It’s humor that’s meant to add to tension, not lighten it.
The Batman movies proceed in the same vein. I can only recall one big laugh in Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne reads the headlines the day after his mansion burns down. Almost every joke in The Dark Knight comes out of Heath Ledger’s words or actions (the magic pencil, dressing up as a nurse, etc). Those rough chuckles aside, it’s nothing but a grim march from initial disturbance to final showdown.
And then Inception. IOZ only counts one joke in the entire movie: a stolen kiss. I’d say there’s more than that: Eames, the British “forger,” gets some good ones at Arthur’s expense. Still, when you’re sifting through a 148-minute movie and coming up with a few nuggets, you know Nolan’s made something grim. Compare that to Hitchcock at his best, who laced his movies with sexual innuendo, snubs at authority and light banter all while rocketing toward a tense climax. I hope Nolan reverses this course with his next flick, or else I’m locking up the whiskey and guns before I go see it.
Update: I didn’t exhaustively list the rest of the jokes, and I did in fact forget a few. I think the point still stands: Inception is a grimmer movie than Memento. It’s a grimmer movie than your typical summer action fare, like Jaws or Iron Man. It’s definitely grimmer than Rear Window; it’s perhaps comparable to Psycho. Is that much in doubt?
* One might agree and call that “damning with faint praise.” Sometimes I leave the last apple on the tree for guests.