Wink and Nod

Although 'Insomnia' has a suspenseful plot, it's not what dreams are made of.

Sometimes, when the medication stops working and my dog is telling me to kill again, I like to head off to the movies, just to make the bloodlust go away. On such occasions, of course, I seek out the latest Robin Williams picture so that I can be forcibly uplifted and made to feel good about humanity.

Thus it was that I attended a screening of Insomnia, which stars some of my favorite actors, like Maura Tierney and Nicky Katt and Martin Donovan, and some actors who might better serve humanity by being mulched and used as fertilizer for tobacco fields, like Al Pacino.

Mostly, though, I was interested in seeing Insomnia because it was directed by Christopher Nolan, who made one of last year's best movies, Memento. Some people didn't like Memento, which I can understand, because not everyone has a functioning cerebral cortex. Others were deeply impressed both by the artistry of the direction and by the way the form of the narrative meshed so nicely with the theme.

Insomnia, sadly, does away with these directorial niceties and just tells its story in straight linear form. This wouldn't be a problem if the first 20 minutes or so weren't filled with needlessly embarrassing expository dialogue, much of it delivered in wimpy, I-don't-want-to-be-here style by Martin Donovan, who gives by far the worst performance of his career.

It probably doesn't help that he's cast as Al Pacino's partner, since Pacino is such a scenery chewer that he's had to have several sets removed from his blocked colon. Anyway, Pacino is Will Dormer and Donovan is Hap Eckhart, two L.A. cops who've been sent to Alaska to solve a murder.

While this makes no sense whatsoever, some explanation is provided in that they're both being investigated by the L.A. police department's internal affairs bureau, and so their chief has decided to get them out of town.

If you can swallow that premise, then there's a recent presidential election I'd like to convince you wasn't rigged. In any event, detectives Dormer and Eckhart meet up with Ellie Burr, a local Alaskan police detective played by Hilary Swank, who, with her bizarrely oversized front teeth, looks like the world's prettiest chipmunk.

Of course, Pacino is her hero, and she studied all of his cases at the academy, because any time an older cop is paired with a younger cop, the older cop is a legend and an inspiration to law enforcement officials everywhere.

Up to this point, the movie was looking like a total washout, and I was starting to hope that Pacino's increasingly droopy face would just slide off his skull. Luckily, things pick up nicely somewhere towards the beginning of the middle third of the movie when Robin Williams enters the scene.

Normally, seeing Robin Williams on the big screen is enough to cause me to immediately begin petting puppies and eating warm, mushy foods. His last few films have been so appallingly awful that they're actually considering giving him a special Academy Award.

In Insomnia, though, he's cast against type as a skittish murderer, and he winds up being surprisingly good. This isn't totally shocking, as he was actually good in Seize The Day, the last film wherein he had a dramatic role that didn't involve recycling his Mork act while wearing a rubber clown nose.

Williams also comes into the film just as it acquires its interesting aspect. It seems that detective Dormer has accidentally shot his partner, a partner who was preparing to testify against him. When Dormer rearranges the crime scene to make it look like he wasn't responsible, Williams, as the murderer they were hunting, sees it happen and decides to use this as leverage.

This sets up a nice Hitchcockian thriller, with Pacino and Williams both working together to cover their crimes, and working against each other to ensure their own safety. Meanwhile, Ellie Burr is the only cop who's making any effort to get at what actually happened.

Insomnia could have been a much better movie, because it's central idea about the cop and the criminal in reluctant cahoots is actually pretty decent. Unfortunately, it never reaches the heights it could have. Director Nolan is too in love with his Alaskan scenery to shoot it in an interesting way, the script is sloppy, and the story eventually goes exactly where you expect it to. Nonetheless, it has a few good moments, and the twisty plot is top-notch thriller material. Plus, doing this film kept Robin Williams from making Bicentennial Man 2: Bicentennial Puppy, so it can't be all bad.

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