Have you ever watched a movie and not been able to place why you didn’t like it? I never have that problem with Christopher Nolan’s films. Memento and The Dark Knight aside, I always admire them without liking them very much. I remember when the Nicole Holofcener film Friends With Money came out, Roger Ebert remarked that it was a terrific idea for a film, just not a film that was actually good, and I feel the same way about many of Nolan’s films. After I saw Inception, I was initially very taken with the film, because I liked the act of describing it to other people. It was a great concept, almost meticulously thought out and plotted, but the more I explained it, the more I realized that it wasn’t much more than that. Watching Inception is like tackling a very difficult crossword puzzle. After you’ve solved it and have that initial rush of finishing, what do you really have left?
And like crossword puzzles, I don’t find the experience much fun. Nolan’s films—which he thinks up and scripts with his brother, Jonathan—seem like they would be a hoot to talk about, kind of like Kafka describing the plots of his novels to friends and cackling while he did it. But unlike Kafka—who actually deals with the real world in his own weird, existential way—Nolan’s films aren’t anything more than the telling. When you look at Inception and, to a lesser extent, The Prestige, you can see that it’s all plot, concept and intricate storyboarding—whoever worked on that floating hallway scene in Inception should get a gold medal—but doesn’t amount to much more than the choreography. It’s like talking to a beautiful model who looks great but has nothing interesting to say. It’s not a bad thing to be all surface (see: The Devil Wears Prada), but don’t pretend to be more than you are. I highly doubt Gisele Bundchen thinks she’s Kierkegaard.
Inception, The Prestige and Memento are all similarly staged in that they are about the trick of the film, a very elaborate game that Nolan is playing, but Memento stands as Nolan’s greatest film because it’s about something more. It’s about the realities we choose to believe in, the worlds we construct for ourselves. It’s saying something potently philosophical and thematically interesting, and Inception’s dream gazing has little to add to that assertion. Inception and The Prestige are so in love with their gimmicks that they haven’t thought much past that, to devote time to being either rich with subtext or character. In Inception, Nolan barely gives his characters names, because calling someone “The Actor” does not count. Although they got names, one critic of The Prestige mentioned that the film amounted to little more than spy vs. spy, but I think that gives the film too much credit. Spies have motivations and personalities, and Nolan didn’t write those; he writes pieces in a game. I would instead describe the film as pawn vs. pawn.
It’s not a sin to be overly clever. Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman are clever all the time, and usually make good films. The latter two’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York (respectively) are legitimate contenders for best of their decade. However, the difference is that their films are grounded in something real and relatable and have characters that you actually give a damn about. Eternal Sunshine is the best-case scenario of this, getting career-best performances out of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in painting a portrait of a relationship on a Mobius Strip. Although the movie could have been just about the surreal experience of the dream worlds these characters find themselves in, the aching heart beating at the center of the film makes it a masterpiece. The mindfuck isn’t Charle Kaufman’s elaborate story, per se; the mindfuck is the discovery of love’s profound uncertainties.
Unlike Kaufman, there’s little room for real emotion in Nolan’s films, and so it’s hard to give a crap about what’s going on. Instead of wringing genuine feeling, Nolan has a notable history of rotely killing off women to give the male characters something to be upset about. Memento, The Dark Knight and Insomnia are all driven by the deaths of wives and women, and in Inception, we see the Stock Dead Wife die four different times, in case you missed it the first time. Interestingly enough, this was very similar to the recurring Stock Dead Wife flashbacks in Shutter Island, which debuted in theatres four months before Inception did, starred Leonard DiCaprio and also dealt in labyrinthine real v. unreal mindgames.
I want to like Nolan’s films, but I’m concerned that he isn’t challenging himself to grow as a writer if he’s relying on the same things he always does. Critics often give Sofia Coppola crap for doing the same thing, but do we chastise Nolan for it? No. We give his films a pass for bringing big ideas to the multiplex, but just because something is narratively complex doesn’t make it particularly deep or interesting. The best of Nolan’s films give his characters real themes and issues to grapple with, and even if critics give The Dark Knight flack for nearly laying out its motifs in a Powerpoint (in the same way that Inception tends to announce what’s going on), at least it’s about something: actual people.