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[whitespace] Al Pacino and Robin Williams
And This Is For Patch Adams: Tortured cop Al Pacino manhandles murder suspect Robin Williams in 'Insomnia.'

Sleepless Sinners

'Insomnia' dresses up a meat-and-potatoes thriller with symbolist sauce

By Richard von Busack

EVEN WHEN Al Pacino arrives in Nightmute, Alaska, he's as ashy-looking as an Italian can possibly get. And like ash, he crumbles slowly throughout the long running time of the pretentious police story Insomnia. Pacino plays Will Dormer, a compromised cop tortured by his conscience. In the raving fury Pacino builds up, he tells us there's more to this part than meets the eye. I wish I could share his conviction.

Dormer is an LAPD criminal expert, and his appearance evokes the adoration of local constable Ellie Burr, who read all his case studies when she was studying criminology. She's played by perky Hilary Swank, who practically wears a shirt reading, "I Will Be the Hostage in the Final Shootout." The corpse of a murdered girl has brought Dormer to town. He notes that the killer carefully prepared the body to make sure that no evidence stuck to it and decides that this killer will kill again: "He's crossed the line and didn't blink." Soon Dormer deduces that the culprit is a local pulp-mystery author named Walter Finch (Robin Williams). The writer denies the accusation, but he likes to make telephone calls to the cop in the middle of the night to discuss the case. William's underplaying of the maniac works well enough. Since we know Williams is capable of wild-man behavior, he relies on that threat and never touches outsized emotions. But he downplays too convincingly--he's basically colorless in the role.

What both the killer and the adoring Ellie don't know is that Dormer is in midst of an internal-affairs investigation that may get many of his previous arrests and convictions retried. Moreover, the accidental death of his partner (Martin Donovan, never better) increases Dormer's sense of paranoia, and his sleeplessness is worsened by the midnight-sun conditions in the far north of Alaska.

I haven't seen the Norwegian original by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, with Stellan Skarsgard in the lead, but this remake is too awash in Lutheran guilt for the mood to be homegrown. The implication of this unconquerably glum film is that it's not just a police story but the story of every one of us sinners. Director Christopher Nolan, having earned much success and praise for taking a relatively simple story and telling it backward in Memento, delivers the same kind of simple story in the right chronological order. This time around, however, Nolan's gimmick--Dormer's insomniac agony--isn't clever enough to obscure the threadbare script. The film's point about the moral gray zone the police must operate in would have been better made if everything in this murder investigation (and in Dormer's previous casebook) hadn't been so clearly a case of good vs. evil. Count Insomnia as another film sabotaged by the star's belief that his character may be battered but must always be doing all the right things, even if they're done in the wrong way.

Insomnia (R; 118 min.), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Hillary Seitz, photographed by Wally Pfister and starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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