Review: ‘Inception’ Has Razzle-Dazzle, But It Needs the Joker

The ambitious, phantasmagorical thriller from writer-director Christopher Nolan proves more engaging to the mind and eyes than to the heart

Make me care.

If a movie wants to connect with an audience, it has to draw viewers into a story and invest them in what is happening to its major characters.

This is the essence of a great popular movie, one that will stand the test of time. Think of Scarlett and Rhett in “Gone With the Wind,” Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca.” Think of Neo in the first “Matrix.”

You can have all the visual razzle-dazzle you want, Nobel Prize-worthy intellectual fireworks, and expensive, noisy shoot-outs and car chases galore, but if at least one major character doesn’t reach out and grab you, it means nothing.

And that’s exactly where “Inception” falls short.

The ambitious, phantasmagorical thriller from writer-director Christopher Nolan (“Dark Knight”) proves more engaging to the mind and eyes than to the heart.

There’s no real emotional payoff and, call me old-fashioned, but that’s what I’m looking for in a movie. No matter how low the budget or how drab the look, give me a plot and characters that pack a wallop — and not just with their fists — I’m there.

Consider “Frozen River,” “The Hurt Locker” and the current “The Kids are All Right.” Together, all three recent movies probably cost less to make than a quarter of “Inception’s” total budget of $160 million. And yet their characters are so much more vivid and specific than those in the Nolan film. They linger with you for days, even months.

A day after seeing “Inception,” the dazzling visuals haunt you, playing at the edges of your mind, but not one of the characters.

It’s not as if Nolan hasn’t made movies with compelling characters before. “Memento,” the 2000 indie psychological thriller that was his breakout film, dazzled because it managed to make its protagonist, a man suffering from memory loss who was trying to track down his wife’s killer, such a fascinating figure even as he tried to work his way through a dizzying maze of a plot.

In reviving the Batman franchise in 2005 with “Batman Begins,” he made Bruce Wayne a believably conflicted superhero. And in Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” the tortured soul that was the Joker (helped by a brilliant, twisted performance by Heath Ledger) kept viewers riveted.

There’s no single character in “Inception” who grabs you that way. The two who are meant to, and come closest, are Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who is seen in flashbacks and in dream sequences.

Cobb is an Extractor, the best that there is. This means that, per the movie’s self-referential mythology, he specializes in entering other people’s brains when they are dreaming and extracts their secrets.

He is hired by a corporate mogul (Ken Watanabe) to attempt to do the reverse: to put an idea into the head of a corporate rival (Cillian Murphy).

Essentially, “Inception” is a heist film turned inside out.  Rather than taking something from a mark, Cobb and his team of expert helpers devise and attempt to carry out an elaborate scheme to get inside the mark’s dreams and plant a notion.

Easier said than done, or explained. All this business of induced and shared dreams involves multiple levels of reality, slowed-down time and newly created worlds in which the normal rules of physics don’t apply (including one particularly cool sequence in which a city block in Paris folds onto itself).

It’s all pretty darn intricate and baffling. When one of Cobb’s helpers wails, “Wait! Whose subconscious are we about to go into?” you feel her pain.

And, at some point, you’ll cease caring about whether you’re following all the ins and outs of the plot and just sit back and watch the spectacle.

Now, admittedly, I'm writing this review based on a single viewing. “Inception,” with its incredibly complicated — and, yes, confusing — plot, clearly requires multiple viewings to see how all the pieces fit together and to absorb fully the workings of its self-created world.

Maybe after additional viewings the characters will seem more fully fleshed out, too, and I’ll feel a greater stake in what happens to them.

I hope so, because “Inception” has so much else going for it.