Review: Naked Lunch: Mesmerizing trip to nowhere

In "The Fly'' and "Dead Ringers,'' David Cronenberg turned his horror film sensibilities to the destruction of lives from within.

Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly'' gets done in by his own DNA after accidentally letting a fly into a transport chamber; the "Ringers'' twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons, drag each other down in a dark dance that only they really understand.

Now in "Naked Lunch,'' Cronenberg tries to bring this sensibility to the works of Lawrence resident William S. Burroughs. The results are frequently mesmerising but ultimately unsatisfying.

Based on Burroughs' 1959 novel, the film follows William Lee (Peter Weller), a literate exterminator who wears a brown suit and a big brown hat almost as camouflage. His wife, Joan, (Judy Davis) has become addicted to his bug powder; he does as well, and the police haul him in for questioning.

WHILE UNDER interrogation, the police produce a giant bug out of a box. The bug announces that Lee is an agent fighting some unspecified evil in Interzone, and tells him he's about to kill his wife. Lee then goes home, and he does shoot Joan in a fatal game of William Tell when he tries to shoot a glass off of Joan's head.

A strange being in a bar then tells him to buy a typewriter and head for Interzone, a stand-in for Tangiers on the North African coast. There Lee, trying to write, passes in and out of hallucinations as he deals with a number of people and insects, including a couple named Frost (Davis again and Ian Holm) who get caught up in his life. Lee's typewriter, which keeps turning into a bug, gives him instructions on what to do. All the while Lee grapples with guilt over shooting his wife and his own homosexuality.

CRONENBERG places both reality and hallucination on a level playing field. The game here is not to distinguish between illusion and reality but to take it all on at once as a cohesive, though skewed, plot. It's a James Bond movie with drugs, boys and insects instead of explosions, girls and Q. Writers are agents reporting back from the foreign land of their own subconscious, which is why Lee keeps saying he's sending back "reports'' to New York from Interzone.

Cronenberg turns Burroughs' jazz-oriented, shock-sentence structure into a crisp screenplay that lends the film much of its energy. And his monsters are truly disturbing. There's also a great jazz score by Howard Shore and featuring Ornette Coleman on saxophone.

BUT THE images and themes in "Naked Lunch'' lack resonance, and toward the end the film turns into a bore that goes in no discernable direction. There could be a generational problem here: What people thought profound in print 30 years ago may seem bloodless today on screen. In 1959, little was permitted; today, especially in art, everything is permitted. Some people may find this film jives with their experiences and dreams; I didn't.

"Naked Lunch'' probably holds up better as a novel you're carried along by Burroughs' fiercely original prose style. In "The Fly'' and "Ringers,'' Cronenberg was able to bring his dying characters to a near-operatic climax of depravity. In "Naked Lunch,'' Cronenberg is left to hammer home the idea that Lee's liberation as a writer comes as the result of his shooting Joan. The film never quite reaches an emotional climax.

PETER WELLER keeps us in the film far longer than you'd expect by his riveting performance. All bones and gnarled rage, Weller both participates in and examines from afar the strange turns his life takes. It's good to see someone took a can opener to his "Robocop'' costume and let him out.

Judy Davis is mysterious and sensual as Joan. Michael Zelniker and Nicholas Campbell are welcome side attractions as stand-ins for, respectively, beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. And Roy Scheider does a great cameo turn as the sinister Dr. Benway.

"Naked Lunch'' will draw a wide spectrum of critical opinion, and it has a built-in audience of Burroughs fans. If it works for you, go with it.

"Naked Lunch'' opens Friday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass.


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