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Asleep at the Wheel 

With Insomnia, Christopher Nolan seems to strip himself of so much of what made his modest debut Following so intriguing and Memento one of the best films of last year. Through subtraction by addition, he loses so much slyness and subtlety, you have to wonder if this blossoming indie darling got bit by the Hollywood bug.

That's because Insomnia rather conventionally favors the thriller portion of the neo-noir thriller, so muddled in its plot contrivance and character development that the real mystery may be why Nolan even bothered with this project in the first place. And yet, as the current offerings go, it remains an interesting enough piece of filmmaking.

Where his first two films feature ideas for rumination -- brain-teasers with a lightness of foot -- the core idea behind the self-explanatory title of the film seems little more than a plot propulsion. And if Nolan seemed hung up on narrative ballets before, now he seems more comfortable with a square dance, so linear is Insomnia that the flashbacks are less clues than they are time filler. Beyond a two-hour commercial for Sleep-Ez, what have we really got here?

Shot in Alaska and featuring Oscar winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank (the trailers keep reminding us), Nolan's Insomnia is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film by Erik Skjoldbjærg and features a script adapted by Hillary Seitz. This appears to cripple Nolan before he even gets out of the gate: He wrote Following and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script for Memento, showing the beginnings of a singular vision, and did it with no-name or lesser-known actors. In both stories, he made intriguing questions out of such notions as identity (Following) and the elusive nature of memory (Memento) with wit and style.

Trapped in a story he didn't create, Nolan gets by with an aural sense of Alaska that includes sweeping shots of the ice-capped landscape, and a fog that metaphorically shrouds everyone. Fair enough. But when he has to put his starpower into action, Nolan seems ill at ease.

For their part, the actors seem willing to take the kind of chances we expect from stars slumming with the indies, but that's about it. As L.A. detective Will Dormer, Pacino spends the entire time sleep deprived thanks to those Midnight Sun Alaskan days in Nightmute (get it?) -- reminiscent of his moping through Sea of Love. He and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) have been sent to help out on a murder investigation of a teenage girl while they are under the screws of Internal Affairs -- we're assuming this is the L.A. version of "suspended with pay."

They find an eager helper among the local cops in wide-eyed Ellie Burr (Swank), who's studied Det. Dormer's celebrated work at some unnamed police academy and is initially unaware of the pair's troubles back home. Just when they think they've trapped the murder suspect (Williams as pulp mystery writer Walter Finch), they lose him in that elusive fog. During the pursuit, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner (in full view of his prey), panics and immediately covers up the crime.

And therein lies the set-up, a cat-and-mouse game between the detective and the detective-story writer, who taunts his hunter every chance he gets (especially knowing how much poor Dormer needs a nap). And that appears to be the crux of Nolan's idea here: that insomnia takes our already tenuous moral barometer and messes with it big-time. So Dormer agrees to help get Finch off the hook while simultaneously digging into his crooked cop bag of trips to frame him, and Finch blackmails Dormer while getting him to realize how much alike they really are.

For their part, Pacino and Williams play it fairly straight, which in itself is a welcome relief considering the ham-fisted acting they've tortured us with over the past decade. If it's supposed to be acting against type a little, we can be grateful, but at the same time there's nothing really kinetic about them, either. Swank, by contrast, is given very little to do beyond stumbling onto clues and thinking real, real hard. Even if that were enough, to have the whole thing conclude in a shootout (who will live?) robs Nolan of any chance to deliver the kind of elliptical ending that had viewers talking about Memento days afterward. There's no moral ambiguity here, and not much nuance, and barely a trace of the flashback fun of you know what.

Instead, Nolan appears to forge an uneasy alliance between his promising skills and a rather conventional thriller. And with the mystery solved about a third of the way through, there's not much else to do except figure out just what Dormer might have done that was so bad back in L.A. and whether he deserves any redemption. Where's the fun in that?

Christopher Nolan's got a long way to go in his career. He'll have a dozen more opportunities to play with our heads; here's hoping he catches a quick cat-nap and cures his own creative insomnia.

click to enlarge Gimme sleeping pills, dammit! Det. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) can barely hold onto murder suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams) in Christopher Nolan's snoozer, Insomnia.
  • Gimme sleeping pills, dammit! Det. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) can barely hold onto murder suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams) in Christopher Nolan's snoozer, Insomnia.
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