Worth A Look: 13.84%
Pretty Bad: 2.26%
Total Crap: 3.39%
18 reviews, 246 user ratings
by Jack Sommersby
Tries to rest on its artsy laurels by trotting out a catchy story premise to carry the show. But the bland characters and uninvolving plot developments fail to enitce, and there isn't so much as a whisper of sustained tension to be found. A classic example of manner over matter.Imagine, if you will: Reading a crime novel in reverse-chronological order, beginning with the very last chapter and concluding with the first one, while taking the time in between to go back (or forward, in this particular case) after each read chapter to re-read the first few pages of the one right after (or the one you read right before) to shed some light onto the just-read one. Admittedly, this doesn't come off as anything even remotely enjoyable, yet, just maybe, an interesting time could have been had from it -- that is, if the novel had been written so the motivations and incidents leading up to the violence were as startling as the violence itself. However, if the context is underwhelming then this unorthodox method of mental absorption won't be able to do a whole hell of a lot for the novel overall -- it's still going to be underwhelming.
"Best Left Forgotten in the Morning"
Writer/director Christopher Nolan has ambitiously attempted to apply this storytelling method to Memento, basing his screenplay on his brother Jonathan's original idea for a short story. The way this plays out, the film starts out with a murder and then works its way back from that point, detailing how the trigger-pulling protagonist arrived at this course of action. In doing so, Nolan has set up Memento to function as a whydunit rather than a whodunit. But for a challenging exercise such as this to work, three cinematic basics need apply: first, the protagonist, whose eyes we see the story through, should be captivating enough to sustain interest throughout; second, the plot turns need to incite, build, and sustain story momentum; third, the direction need be agile and inventive so the overall story schema not come off as a mechanically measured plot sketch. Alas, Memento fails on all three counts because it reveals itself to have been an empty-headed excursion from the get-go, where its catchy narrative structure was expected to carry the day, to elevate the paper-thin material to a much higher plateau it's simply incapable of ascending to.
What there is of the story consists of insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (played by L.A. Confidential alum Guy Pearce) doggedly tracking down his wife's killer. Leonard himself sustained serious brain damage while trying to defend his wife in their home, rendering him unable to retain any further short-term memories. Initially intriguing, this. For how does one make progress in solving a complicated case when whatever derived clues can be forgotten no sooner than a few minutes after being discovered? It becomes not only the case of trying to find a needle in a haystack, because the hero can all too easily forget which haystack he's supposed to be sifting through at any given time. As a remedy, Leonard keeps extensive mementos of his progress: ranging from pictures, scribbled notes, and tattoos all over his body. Not remembering the number of your motel room can be bothersome, but retaining the correct name and location of the motel itself can present an even bigger hassle. And matters can't be complicated any more than not being able to remember the people you've talked to no more than five minutes before.
You'd think Leonard's woeful plight would make for a sound taking-off board for a story told through a straightforward narrative. The audience being with Leonard 'at the moment' throughout would be difficult to get through, certainly -- the plot propulsion would be stunted, to say the least, lurching forth unsteadily in numerous fits and starts -- yet slowing down our sense of realization would be absolutely essential in getting us fully into Leonard's handicapped mind, where the remembering and deciphering of even the simplest clues would be more of a luxury than a given. In 1990's phenomenal After Dark, My Sweet, director James Foley expertly brought us right into the contorted mental midst of a punch-drunk boxer; not knowing whether or not he was smarter as assumed gave the well-plotted story a great deal of jazzy unpredictability. But the way Christopher Nolan has laid things out here, we find ourselves distanced from Leonard more often than not.
(Guy Pearce is an honorable actor, and he manages to bring some suggestions of depth to the role. But he's a character actor, not a leading man -- his inability to bring variety and magnetism to Leonard is a severe liability in that we have neither an emotional stake in him nor the film. Of course, the character hasn't been written all that well, but Pearce is too contained and unforceful; he's not inept, but just unable to vivify and fill in the unwritten gaps. I did, though, feel sympathy for Pearce in his one unplayable scene -- a recitation of a mawkish monologue while sitting up in bed alongside a hooker that's so overstated you feel like hurling things at the screen.)
Either the labyrinth mystery surrounding Leonard needs to act as the underlying reason for our involvement, or the character himself needs to. Neither does. And not just because the mystery turns out to be disappointingly tepid, nor that Leonard comes off as more a walking-and-talking concept than a three-dimensional human being, but due to the fact that it's the film technique -- the needless cutting back and forth between one happenstance after the other -- that's the predominating narrative force at work here. Right when a fair amount of interest has been worked up in the film's favor, and we start to feel a wee bit of stake in the story, Nolan cuts to another previous segment, and then, right after that plays itself out, we linger for a couple of minutes more on the segment we just got through watching right before that -- a method that's more infuriating than enlightening because, unlike Leonard, most of us have functional short-term memories, so we feel dumbed-down by the all the redundancy.
For the first thirty to forty-five minutes we're willing to give Memento the benefit of the doubt. Accustomed to chronologically told films, this is a new experience for most of us (unless you saw that dreadful 1983 adaptation of playwright Harold Pinter's Betrayal) as much as Leonard's newfound condition is for him. But what's revealed to us during the course of the film simply fails to grip. It's not that we're preened for immediate payoffs right and left, but (gosh forbid!) we are geared-up for a thriller, and Nolan, seeking so badly to come off as a true original, neglects to satisfy with some of the basic rudiments that make thrillers fun or, at the very least, consistently involving.
There are two main supporting characters who keep popping up: a sulky barmaid (the wooden Carrie-Ann Moss of The Matrix) and some sleazy small-time underworld type (the game but wasted Joe Pantoliano, also of The Matrix), who are intended to add color and texture and a sense of danger to the proceedings; neither, though, holds nary a shred of interest. They're simply ciphers of the plot and appear to have been written in for the sole sake of giving Leonard a couple of people to constantly sound off of. A vicious drug dealer figures into the equation also, yet all this leads to is an awkwardly staged shootout, as if Nolan felt a clear-cut antagonist was needed to spice this already-bland stew up. And I don't know what demon on Earth possessed him to bring in two totally irrelevant characters -- a homey husband and wife, with the former apparently suffering from the same condition as Leonard (aside from blatantly ripping off David Fincher's Fight Club where a character is revealed to be highly delusional, transferring his pent-up angst onto imagined creations). These scenes are shot in B/W, are related to us in the form of flashbacks, and throw us right out of the film every single time; they feel fishy initially, and you just know Nolan used them to add variety to things, as if he just knew the paper-thin story conception just wasn't going to cut it in a feature-length format.
Memento is constantly at cross-purposes with itself. Instead of having the guts to follow through with what he started with, by actually developing and then deepening the material, Nolan bends his own made-up rules to accomodate any immediate need for a cheap effect or plot convenience. Sometimes Leonard manages to go ten to fifteen minutes before relapsing into forgetfulness; other times, it's clearly been closer to a half-hour. When Nolan desires to get more information across by speeding up the developments, Leonard's relapses are put off; but when opportunity for a zinger arises, the intervals and durations shorten. And from what I can see, he hasn't even remotely thought the material through enough to get proper mileage out of it. Given, there's a finely milked scene where Leonard explains to a front-desk man at his motel that he's sorry about having to keep reminding the man of his condition, but others are simply trite, like a scene in a bar where a beer's been spit into right in front of Leonard just so he can take a big 'ol slurp of it immediately after a relapse. (Maybe a frat boy snuck onto the set and inserted this into the shooting script.) And Nolan isn't even creative enough to have Leonard relapse in the middle of that dumb shootout, so he wouldn't know what hellish situation he'd happened into.
I'll admit to having been amused at a couple of sarcastic lines aimed at Leonard's forgetfulness, and the location shooting is always coming up with something fresh, placing us in areas and abodes that suggest a lot more sleaze and tawdriness than Nolan's been able to deliver. But Memento simply fails to deliver on the screenplay level. It's not enough that the plot points, which serve as catalysts for the ensuing violence, fail to fascinate or provide any kind of kick, but the conclusion that's arrived at through them is hopelessly banal. Christopher Nolan set out to make a film too soon without knowing why he was making it, except to exploit a catchy story premise for those eagerly seeking something they can readily proclaim as "art." Allow me to quote critic Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic who, in a review dated back to 1973, surmised the following of director Arthur Penn's handling of the pole-vaulting segment in the Olympic documentary Visions of Light:
"...to appreciate how Penn used his head before he used his camera, how he was attracted to his subject, how he found the kinetic core of what he wanted to catch, how he presents it without neither affectation nor cliche, how he makes us perceive more in a subject than we may have thought exhausted."
Nolan hasn't come within a thousand yards of hitting this kind of mark. Rather, he's simply skimmed the surface of his subject, assuming the dedicated audience starved for original art would grasp and devour the slim pickings of its potential, reading a lot more into things than what's actually present. What's really sad about this is that, judging by the critical raves and favorable audience responses, Nolan's myopic aims won out.
I've read pieces alluding to Alan Parker's phenomenal Angel Heart, linking its amnesia-ridden protagonist to the character of Leonard, whereas both discover information through an infected mind, which is simply ludicrous. In Angel Heart, private eye Harry Angel was unaware of his affliction on a conscious level -- he was in the dark as much as the viewer -- so the jaw-dropping surprise ending had plenty of resonance. But in Memento, Leonard is perfectly aware of his affliction; it's the condition, not a third party, that's pulling his strings. As for the film being cited as "brilliantly edited," shivers run down my spine at the mere implication. Given a slide ruler and some push-pins, any competent editor could have fashioned a similar complete whole on a humongous bulletin board. The editing is certainly smooth, but it's also too mechanical and impersonal to really hurtle us along. Memento is more complicated than complex, but its originality has been mistaken for something special, which has elevated it to a grossly overrated state. An ambitious filmmaker is undoubtedly a fine thing, but when he or she winds up unable to make good on their promise, it becomes a sad statement of our time when audiences start filling in the creative gaps for them, thus propelling a grandiose but shallow film to a more respectable level than it even remotely deserves.Sadly, this attempt at art was myopically viewed as an automatic achievement of it by countless gullibles. Shame, shame.
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originally posted: 12/15/02 04:57:54