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Sleeper Hold

Christopher Nolan's new thriller 'Insomnia' is a real eye-opener

By Steve Palopoli

EVER NOTICE how tired Al Pacino looks these days? You could pack for summer camp in those bags under his eyes. So you hate to see him in a movie called Insomnia--even though he's the obvious choice--only because you want to see the poor guy get some shut-eye.

And Robin Williams--well, you hate to see him in any movie. I guess we're supposed to respect him for his recent "edgier" roles like this and Death to Smoochy, but saying I liked him more in Insomnia than in, say, Bicentennial Man simply means I didn't want to murderize his sorry sad-clown ass every time he was onscreen. Ever since Dead Poets Society, this guy has taken himself painfully seriously as an actor--he's Mork, for Christ's sake, and I wish no one had ever told him otherwise.

What's more, I hope it was humbling for him to have to stand there while Pacino acted circles around him, as he literally does in Insomnia. Granted, Al isn't exactly going out on a limb playing a cop; in fact, he might as well apply for a patent on the street-smart, world-weary, tough and sassy law-enforcement type he plays here. But it's just plain sad that he brings 10 times more menace to his surprisingly complex role than Williams can muster up for a classic bad guy part that anybody worth their weight as a heavy would have hit out of the park. Personally, I found him far creepier in Patch Adams, but that's just me.

Why Insomnia works so well despite the fizzle of the big-name match-up is that the real star is director Christopher Nolan. Part of the first wave of 21st-century star directors, along with Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky and a handful of others, Nolan's Memento snowballed from a clever little redesign of the thriller genre to the movie that everybody was talking about a couple of years ago. The pressure's always on in that kind of situation to deliver a second pic that proves you weren't just a lucky chump with one good idea, and Nolan really delivers with this, not just because it's an equally good film but because it's such a different film.

The first thing, in fact, that fans of Memento will notice about Insomnia is how damn big it is. Nolan's debut was a claustrophobic crime thriller that made the most of a relatively tiny budget by moving quickly through the same few sets, with tight shots and a fascinating disjointed structure covering for the lack of atmosphere. This movie opens with landscape shots that are absolutely gigantic, not to mention gorgeous. Maybe Nolan was playing catch-up, or maybe that bigger bankroll went to his head, but in any case he's crammed at least two films' worth of good-looking movie into this one. The Alaskan landscape the movie is set against (some of it was filmed in British Columbia) seeps from the background into the story line throughout, and not only because the perpetual sun is one of the things keeping Pacino's insomniac cop up all hours of the night.

Nolan brilliantly takes connect-the-dot sequences that have become boring routine in lesser thrillers--the cops move in on the suspect's house, the smart cop catches the bad guy off-guard and almost nabs him--and makes them scary again by booby-trapping them with the jagged rocks, rolling fog and floating logs of the locale. It sounds eerily close to Frogger, I know, but believe me, it works.

What it makes you realize in the end more than anything is that Nolan's genius is very simple: he makes the all-too-cliché narrative and visual language of the thriller genre seem brand-new by throwing it at you in a different way. In Memento, it was backwards; in Insomnia, it's off-balance. Off-balance like a cop who may be losing his moral footing to the murderer of a teenage girl for reasons far too complex and delicate to reveal here, or his actual footing as he barrels across a landscape that seems far more dangerous than the guy he's chasing. Off-balance like a main character who hasn't slept in days, and who's getting awfully tweaky because of it.

After securing his rep with this movie, Nolan, on the other hand, should be able to sleep just fine, with nothing to trouble his little head except the occasional nightmare about Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg signing on to play the psychos in a two-picture deal from hell.

Insomnia (R; 116 min.), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Hillary Seitz, photographed by Wally Pfister and starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank and Maura Tierney, plays at the Riverfront Stadium Twin in Santa Cruz, 41st Avenue Cinemas in Capitola and Fox Theatre in Watsonville.

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From the May 29-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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