Insomnia's nerve-jangling perpetual sunset.

Reviews of the latest films.
May 24 2002 10:48 AM

Hard Day's Night

Insomnia sleepwalks through its plot, yet still delivers a nerve-jangling jolt; plus About a Boy, The Believer, and Bartleby.

Pacino and Williams tussle in the land of the midnight sun
Pacino and Williams tussle in the land of the midnight sun

Having missed the Norwegian film on which the new Al Pacino-Robin Williams thriller Insomnia (Warner Bros.) is based, I'm disqualified from making breezy remarks about the awkwardness of the American translation or the damaging impact of Hollywood stars on its fragile Norwegian mood. Damn. I'll just have to take it on its own terms—which is OK, since it's sensationally made and in patches pretty nerve-jangling. The young British director, Christopher Nolan, has quickly become a specialist in putting you inside the heads of men whose perceptions have been fractured. Last year it was the short-term-memory-impaired hero of Memento; this time it's the increasingly exhausted Will Dormer (Pacino), a Los Angeles detective helping out on a murder case in northern Alaska, where the sun, in midsummer, never fully goes down. As Stephen Sondheim once phrased it, "Perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing"—especially if, like Dormer, your guilty conscience would be enough to keep you awake even without all that invasive white light spilling in under the window shades.

Dormer accidentally kills someone in the course of a fog-blanketed manhunt and, for reasons too complicated to recount here, impulsively blames the act on the suspect in the initial murder—the only witness, as it turns out, to what really happened. All night Dormer stares at the digital clock in his Alaskan motel room, the silence broken by the occasional phone call from the murderer he came to hunt—a fellow insomniac who is now, in effect, his co-conspirator. Unable to see a way through his predicament, Dormer essentially sleepwalks through the investigation, while the young Alaskan cop (Hilary Swank) who reveres him begins to wake up to the fact that he's keeping something secret.

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Insomnia gives Pacino the opportunity to spend two hours in a sort of electrified stupor—not much of a stretch, actually, since he's often simultaneously manic and zoned-out. An actor less weirdly self-encased might have had more surprises in him, but few could have gone so far. At first he plays Dormer slightly crotchety, his distracted manner and tenor rasp recalling Michael Moriarty in his Law & Order days. Then, with lack of sleep, his singsong begins to sound like iambic pentameter, his groggy cadences become more distended yet. Pacino turns out to have many levels of stuporous-ness; when you think he can't sink any lower, he's into the subbasement and then the sub-subbasement, until you start to look around for the Phantom of the Opera.

Director Nolan abets Pacino with a syntax both slurry and percussively splintered—the soundscape either too muffled or too sharp, the white light stabbing. He and his hair-trigger editor, Dody Dorn, remove connective tissue from the chases so that you're always off balance, the cuts coming a half-second before you expect them. Glimpsed quickly from behind, surrounded by fog or scampering over rocks or logs, the killer is like some eerie Yeti at the edge of consciousness. The climax is unbelievably clunky in construction, yet it's so explosively edited, with split-second close-ups that recall the finale of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), that I forgot my disappointment until it had ended—when my disappointment returned, but not too insistently.

It should be said that beyond the ingenious insomniac doppelgänger premise (borrowed), this is a lifeless script. Dormer is being hounded by an internal affairs officer in Los Angeles, and through the phone you can hear this cowardly parasite sneer. The plot twists are rickety, the revelations stock, and the motives of the killer—especially in the hackneyed scenes leading up to the final shootout—baffling. It must have made more sense in Norwegian. I like Hilary Swank's sharp new haircut, which makes her face seem less angular, but the eager-beaver act that worked gangbusters in Boys Don't Cry (1999) is a little creepy without the ironic sexual role reversal. As a woman, she's charisma-free.

With a run-of-the-mill bad-guy actor playing chief suspect Walter Finch, the movie might have tipped too far Pacino's way. But Robin Williams is a shockingly effective counterweight. The key is what he doesn't do: Those rubber features remain rigid, that madcap energy harnessed. The sour little curl of Williams' mouth reminds me of Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960)—all the paranoid alertness of a stand-up comic with none of the genial pandering. There is nothing so despairing—or potentially so lethal—as a clown who has given up hope of making us laugh but wants to have an impact on us anyway.

Rachel Weisz pulls Hugh Grant to the mainland
Rachel Weisz pulls Hugh Grant to the mainland

I haven't heard many unsparkling words on the subject of About a Boy (Universal Pictures), an adaptation of Nick Hornby's second novel, and I'm not about to add any—it's irresistible, damn it. Mainstream comedies should all be this funny and tender and deftly performed. It opens with a thesis that can be easily dynamited—an assertion by its rich, lazy, narcissistic protagonist, Will Freeman (Hugh Grant), that all men are, John Donne notwithstanding, islands and that his island happens to be a paradise. Will's sleazy attempt to exploit the sexual needs of single moms leads him, in a roundabout way, to the movie's other protagonist, a friendless, fatherless 12-year-old geek called Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), whose most fervent desire is to connect with someone beside his glum, suicidal mom (Toni Collette). Will's drive to be a free man is just as strong as Marcus' to be attached, but the comic standoff is ultimately settled by John Donne, whose sentiments on the subject of men and islands are not—no surprise—to be sneezed at.

Three things account for much of the movie's charm. The first is Hugh Grant, who adds nothing new to his virtuoso repertoire of self-conscious tics and stammers but who has become savvy enough to search out ironic contexts for them: The adorably boyish act is not just Grant's, it's Will's, and it threatens to imprison this Freeman in a solipsistic cocoon. The second is that the gags all bloom out of the characters' loneliness—they have unexpected emotional heft. Last, the script (by Peter Hedges and directors Chris and Paul Weitz) does a phenomenal job of weaving narration in and out of dialogue. Students of screenwriting should study this hard. Unlike the writers of the last Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity (2000), these guys know the difference between a public and a private utterance, and why the two aren't interchangeable. That knowledge means everything in a movie in which the chasm between what people permit themselves to say to one another and what they're actually thinking is the source of all the comedy—and the terror of isolation, too.

I would hate to have to diagram the emotional trajectory of Danny (Ryan Gosling), the prodigiously conflicted protagonist of Henry Bean's The Believer (Fireworks Pictures). He's a Jew who becomes a Jew-stomping Nazi skinhead and then drifts, in spite of himself, back to Jewish ritual—desperately trying to rationalize his attraction to Torah and tefillin from a Nazi perspective. First he tells his fellow skinheads (who have no idea he's actually an ex-yeshiva boy) that one has to understand Jews to be able to destroy them; then he decides that the easiest way to destroy them would be to embrace and assimilate them—thus robbing them of their traditional outsider/victim roles. Confused? Not as much as Danny. By the end he has abstracted himself into oblivion.

Finally showing up in theaters after a short run on Showtime, The Believer was inspired by a real Ku Klux Klansman who, when exposed by a reporter as a Jew, committed suicide. But the movie leaves the realm of docudrama in the first second and rarely looks back. It's clear, early on, that Danny is so obsessed with his victimization that he has chosen to identify with the anti-Semitic aggressor. What is less clear—but remains tantalizing—is why Danny is also obsessed with the Genesis tale of God forcing Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and its connection to the story of a Holocaust survivor who watched with horrified passivity as his young boy was murdered by the Nazis. My guess is Danny has some Daddy issues that Bean doesn't fully explore; instead, he concentrates on the uneasy relationship between the young Nazi and a group of soft-spoken fascists (led by Billy Zane and Theresa Russell) who have mainstream political ambitions. Somewhere in all this confusion are a bunch of FBI informers and the daughter (Summer Phoenix) of a likely ex-Nazi who sleeps with Danny and is in no time reading Hebrew and lighting Shabbos candles.

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