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Cronenberg adapts the 20th century's great unadaptable novel, and the results - now in high-def - are extraordinary....
Criterion / 115 Minutes / 1991 / Rated R / Street Date: April 9, 2013
David Cronenberg's 1991 mind-bending mobius strip adaptation of William Burroughs' notoriously (and ecstatically) bizarre Naked Lunch is nowhere near as "weird" as its source. To read Burroughs' schizophrenic, hallucinogenic prose is to become lost in an alien, ultra-shocking landscape of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll without a bottom. Even though the book is a half-century old, the creepy dildos and gender-be-damned pansexuality at the novel's core is enough to make even the slutiest tramp on the block blush through her fishnets as she flips through Burroughs' musings.
The fact that Cronenberg's translation of the book to screen isn't definitive, though, is by no means a display of failure. There is significantly less shock and depravity at work in the celluloid Lunch, but that doesn't mean that your favorite Canadian director missed the boat. If anything, Naked Lunch the movie gets the mood and attitude of the book just right, even if it glosses over the really big potholes. So there's no hardcore gay sex. A cop-out, to be sure, but fine. No delirious rape-death fantasies with endless masturbatory climaxes and fornication instruments made out of organic entities? Tough. You'll have to do without.
The cinematic Naked Lunch is an unequivocal success in its own right. Peter Weller's top-notch performance as William Burroughs' alter-ego stand-in, Bill Lee, is a full tilt slam-dunk. Sometimes his droll demeanor on-screen comes off as muddy and overly mercurial, but here (as with his note-perfect turn in Verhoeven's Robocop), he is as mysteriously engaging as he is vague and nebulous. He's both an empathetic protagonist and a shady, back-door alley dweller who will kill you the minute you turn your back - if you're not careful.
And though Judy Davis' turn in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives remains one of the most visceral and piquantly abrasive explosions of marital discord ever put on film, it isn't completely out of left field to say that the woman was born to play the part of Bill Lee's (Burroughs') wife here. Yes, she pops up in multiple caricatures throughout the labyrinthine picture to differing degrees of effect, but those steely eyes and that voluptuous, dangerous sensuality that she's able to portray with the blink of her giant eyes is a power to behold nonetheless. It's a typical response people have to most "weird" movies: You know you like her, but you're not exactly sure why.
Speaking of "weird", how about those bugs? When was the last time you saw somebody rubbing weird-ass powder on the sphincter of an elephantine insect posing as a typewriter? Yeah, right. "Rub some of that powder on my lipppppppppsssss," say the insects as they constantly morph from messengers to diplomats to sexual aggressors while we get close up of human fingers massaging that stuff into the sphincter/mouth of the unknown beasts.
You'll never look at a cockroach in the same way again.
Naked Lunch hasn't had the most pristine reputation over its decade-plus of existence; some said it pulled punches and avoided the central tenets of the book's characteristics, and they may be right. But on this excitingly collectible Criterion edition DVD, we get a chance to reinvestigate the film both as a product of its time and as a part of the ever-growing Cronenberg pantheon, and this curatorial perspective lends the film a splendid sense of importance. This critic finds the film to be a wondrous treasure trove of icky-sticky sex tribbles and the people who love them that gets better and better every time you make it through another viewing. But remember: For everyone who sees it like that, there are twenty who turn it off the second after the first talking Mugwumps show up (trust me - just watch it).
But Naked Lunch - in any form - was never meant to be user-friendly, and even though the Cronenberg version isn't as abyssal a portrait of the darkest corners of the human libido as the novel, it sure does more to investigate the shadows within human beings than pretty much any other film made in the 1990s.