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If only Steely Dan hadn’t gotten there first.

“Pretzel Logic” would have been a perfect alternate title for “Inception.”

It’s descriptive, too, because unlike the mostly stale cinematic marshmallows dominating multiplexes these days, “Inception” offers plenty to chew on, metaphorically speaking — along with lots of snap.

But beware. “Inception’s” major mind-bending requires putting, and keeping, your brain in gear to follow its myriad twists. And some folks might not feel like working so hard.

You know who you are — and you’ve been warned.

Just know that you’ll be missing one of this bummer summer’s few big-studio releases with more going for it than stuff blowing up real good.

Not that “Inception” skimps on that. To be sure, it’s got knockout effects sequences, but it’s one of the few movies in recent memory where the effects serve the story rather than replace the story altogether.

For that, thank writer-director Christopher Nolan, who returns to the sprawling cinematic canvas of “The Dark Knight” — and the twisty thriller structure of his 2000 breakthrough, “Memento.”

Like that instant classic, “Inception” deepens its jigsaw narrative through the emotional turmoil of its heartbreak-haunted hero.

Unlike “Memento’s” can’t-remember protagonist, however, “Inception’s” Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), can’t help but remember.

He remembers his wife Mal (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, in fine femme fatale fettle), why they’re no longer together — and why he can’t go home to their children.

It’s also why Dom keeps working as the leader of a highly specialized squad of master manipulators.

They’re dream raiders, cunning “extractors” who invade their sleeping targets’ minds to steal their deepest secrets — and their marketable ideas.

Once upon a time, governments might have been interested in controlling this sort of thing, but in the new millennium, corporate espionage is where Dom and his team demonstrate their expertise.

And they’ll need every bit if they hope to help an influential executive (“The Last Samurai’s” forceful Ken Watanabe) enter the mind of a rival (“Batman Begins’ ” Cillian Murphy), not to extract an idea but to plant one — an idea that will ensure their client’s continued success. And enable Dom, at long last, to return home.

In on the job: Arthur (slyly witty Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “500 Days of Summer”), Dom’s unflappable partner in crime; Eames (“RocknRolla’s” cheeky Tom Hardy), a master forger, who can transform himself into other characters inside the subject’s dreams; and Yusef (Dileep Rao of “Avatar”), who whips up chemical concoctions capable of putting targets so far under they experience multiple-level dreams within dreams within dreams.

Architect Ariadne (Ellen Page, whip-smart as usual) designs those dreamscapes, creating dazzlingly detailed life-size mazes in which the dreams occur — from city skyscrapers to snow-covered fortresses.

She’s also the only member of the team who understands how dangerous it can be to share dreams with the troubled Dom — and, inevitably, the wife who never stops haunting them.

Those dreams, and what happens during them, form the heart (such as it is) of “Inception.”

Nolan’s far more interested in constructing intricate, intriguing — and even occasionally annoying — dream worlds that provide a hyper-real rather than hallucinatory backdrop for the movie’s cloak-and-dagger action.

And while there are times when “Inception” threatens to get lost down its own cinematic rabbit hole, for the most part, Nolan maintains a steady, if hardly breakneck, pace.

Then again, such a measured approach makes it easier for those of us in the audience to piece the puzzle together. Or, more precisely, puzzles, because “Inception” plays like a three-dimensional reversible puzzle you can assemble more than one way — at least in your mind.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

It’s frequently a very good thing — especially when you consider some of the movie’s standout action sequences. One resembles (quite deliberately) a vintage James Bond movie. Another extended sequence finds Arthur defying gravity in a luxury hotel corridor, not dancing but battling off-balance opponents like a two-fisted Fred Astaire. And a literally dreamy stroll down a Paris street enables Dom and Ariadne to watch the city fold in on itself, like a life-size map — or marvel as giant, moveable mirrors reflect their own reflections, which in turn reflect even more reflections of themselves.

We could go on forever — and there are times “Inception” threatens to do just that, especially when Nolan gets bogged down in Dom’s living nightmare.

If DiCaprio were less of an actor, “Inception” might feel like a recurring dream — considering what happened to his poor deluded character in “Shutter Island” earlier this year.

But DiCaprio manages to put that fever(ed) dream behind him to tap a well of melancholy yearning that keeps “Inception” anchored. Deep down, Dom’s just a guy trying desperately to come to terms with his own mistakes.

Assuming, of course, that he can tell whether he’s really making those mistakes, or just dreaming them.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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