`Insomnia' won't keep you awake at night

Star power isn't enough to carry this remake of a Norwegian film

May 24, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

* 1/2 (one and 1/2 star)

In a final Saturday Night Live so funny it almost redeemed the season, Will Ferrell's Fidel Castro embarrassed Darrell Hammond's Jimmy Carter by bringing up "stagflation": an economic state that combines stagnation and inflation.

Stagflation occurred in the American economy only under Carter, but in American movies it happens all the time - especially in Hollywood remakes of foreign thrillers. Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, for example, attached 18 extra minutes to the Spanish hit Open Your Eyes without opening up the convoluted plot. But at least Crowe's parade of pop-culture references brought some party fever to that fiasco.

Christopher (Memento) Nolan's Insomnia adds 11 minutes to the Norwegian movie of the same name and manages to make everything that was fleeting and tantalizing in the original weighty, literal and dull.

Although the settings have changed, the story and characters remain the same: a hot-shot police detective (Al Pacino) from a big city (Los Angeles) flies to a small town in the Land of the Midnight Sun (the fictional Nightmute, Alaska) to investigate the murder of a teen-age girl. When he takes a fatal shot at a fog-shrouded figure, he pollutes what should have been an airtight case against the real killer. Unable to sleep amid the nonstop glare, the cop questions himself mercilessly.

The Norwegian movie, the debut feature of Erik Skjoldbjaerg, used the two-murder plot to dramatize, in extremis, the psychological jumble most of us carry around every day - the kind that exhaustion can turn dangerously unstable. What's different about the American version is that the detective is a target of an Internal Affairs investigation, which gets almost as much play as the homicide investigation and provides the audience with too pat a reason for the hero's creeping miasma. That addition typifies what Nolan and his screenwriter, Hillary Seitz, do with every moving part of their second-hand vehicle: they hem it in with cliches, rendering it immobile.

In both movies, when the cop confronts a crime novelist who is the prime suspect (Robin Williams, in the film's most energetic performance), the writer tries to draw parallels between the two men's dilemmas. But in Nolan's take on it all, two key characters ultimately declare that the detective is a good man - as if to reassure viewers who can't handle ambiguity. One of the testimonials comes from a pretty young local officer (an overly earnest Hilary Swank) who is dubious about the details of Pacino's shooting incident.

This movie beefs up the mind games between the novelist and the protagonist, but in ways that make the picture move more slowly without upping our emotional involvement or suspense. Pacino has become too adept at depression: As his character goes deeper into sleeplessness and dulled emotions and reflexes, you wonder whether his Method involves huge ingestions of No-Doz. Stellan Skarsgard, in the same role, never totally lost his fluidity; he let us see his emotions ebb and flow. Then again, he was working with a director who has a light touch.

So far, Christopher Nolan, like the strippers in Gypsy, is one entertainer who's gotta get a gimmick; his heavy-handedness in Insomnia may embarrass those who overpraised him for the fractured, time-hopping Memento. Nolan pushes the twilight-zone atmosphere so hard that it loses its capacity for mystery. When it's not assaulting us with jolting audiovisual expressions of fatigue, this movie plays like a pedestrian response to David Lynch's effortlessly eerie Twin Peaks.

Both the Norwegian and American films depict addled mental states under a 24-hour sun, but they're as different as, well, night and day. The main achievement of this Insomnia is that it provides a cure for its title.

Insomnia

Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Rated R for language, brief violence, some nudity

Running time 118 minutes

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