Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Naked Lunch

Did you ever have that friend in high school or college that seemed to go out of their way to do crazy, stupid or gross things, seemingly just to prove that normal people are wusses?  That's kind of how I feel about David Cronenberg sometimes.  The man has made some legendary movies over the past few decades, but for every weirdly appealing film he makes, there seems to be a bizarrely repulsive one to balance out his output.  I categorize Naked Lunch in the latter category.  Theoretically based on the book of the same name by William S. Burroughs, Cronenberg instead chose to make the film a metatextual movie; this is a movie about Burroughs (or, at least an analogue of him) having some serious drug hallucinations and writing what would become Naked Lunch.  The book was thought to be unfilmable for many years --- at one point, Mick Jagger was attached to star, which would have made it unwatchable if it was filmed --- because the book doesn't really have a plot.  Unless drug-fueled ranting is a plot.  Well, it worked for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so maybe this will be just as fun.

Or maybe not.  William Lee (Peter Weller) is a part-time exterminator who learns that his wife has been stealing his bug-killing powder and injecting it into herself.  It's not just any movie that can begin with that premise, you know.  William looks for a way to get her off the drug, but when he arrives home with an alleged cure (mixed in with more bug powder, of course), he finds her having sex with one of his friends; a few minutes later, he plays William Tell with his wife and ends up shooting her in the head.  Oh, did I forget to mention the part where a pizza-sized bug with a mouth on its back tells William that he's a secret agent and must kill his wife?  Yeah.  That happens.
...and then it morphs into a typewriter.  Huh.
The story doesn't get any less strange from that point on, but it's really not worth summarizing.  Naked Lunch really isn't about where the story is going so much as it is about the weird and disturbing things you see along the way.
Speaking of which...!

It is difficult for me to gauge the acting in this film because everyone is purposefully acting unnatural.  So, I guess I'll just judge them within the context of the movie's weirdness.  I thought Peter Weller gave an interesting performance in the lead.  He handles almost everything with an accepting deadpan that fit the material from the book (which is plenty weird without any visuals) and Cronenberg's script.  While I have only hallucinated as a result of a fever, I have observed others tripping their balls off, and the choice to have Weller try and act like everything is normal no matter what he sees rings true.  I would have liked a minimal reaction from Weller on some of the odder moments, but that's a personal preference.  For a movie with a ton of drug trips, the supporting cast is surprisingly small.  Judy Davis plays the dual roles of Joan Frost and Joan Lee, but her character is neither amusing nor appealing in any way.  I don't think that's a reflection of her acting, though, as her part is generally abrasive.  Ian Holm has a small part that is played mostly straight, and he's fine, I suppose.
Is that the woman suit Buffalo Bill always wanted?
Roy Scheider and Julian Sands are both somewhat creepy at first, and then the weird stuff starts to happen.  None of these are particularly great performances, or even the kind that makes you ever want to see these actors again, but I think they fit the material just fine.

I'm less understanding with David Cronenberg's direction and story.  On a purely artistic level, I have to give the man some kudos for filming a seemingly unfilmable novel.  That said, I am amazed that this movie was A) funded B) finished and C) released in theaters.  It is just so intentionally weird, so consistently disgusting, and so frequently repulsive that I have a hard time imagining someone watching this movie and recommending it to anyone else.  The worst part about this movie is that, despite all the weird and gross things, it's still a pretty dull movie.  The story --- which is intentionally unconventional --- has a glacial pace and when you combine a slow pace with deadpan acting, the bizarre visuals in this film lose their impact.  Well, most of them do.
Pictured above: a typewriter vagina.  Possibly.
Cronenberg is capable of a lot more than just gross-out filmmaking, so I find this film, which he invested a lot of time and effort into, very disappointing.  I have always felt that one of Cronenberg's strengths was in his storytelling, so when he directs a movie with no real story (like this one), I think he's working at a disadvantage.  This movie is not incompetent, though.  It is just an interesting failure by a talented director.
Weller and Cronenberg

I grew up a pretty big Simpsons fan, so I was sometimes aware of pop culture before I knew exactly what was being referenced.  There is an episode where Bart, Nelson, Milhouse, and Martin go on a road trip with fake IDs and decide to see an R-rated movie; after leaving a theater showing Naked Lunch, Nelson states "I can think of two things wrong with that title."  That's a pretty good summary of most people's reactions to the movie, but there are some redeeming moments amidst all the weirdness.  There are a handful of truly great lines that I find hilarious in any context, like "Mugwump jism can't be beat."  Weller's monologue about the man who taught his asshole to talk is another one of those moments where the movie really captured the nightmarish ramblings of the source material.  The special effects were all pretty good for 1991, and they are still significantly gross to watch by today's standards.
I wish I had a Mugwump skull keyboard :(

I was hoping that time and a sober viewing would make Naked Lunch more enjoyable than when I watched it in college, but no dice.  Don't get me wrong, this is a weird movie.  It's just not entertaining.
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