So ends the hope that director Richard Linklater would separate the phrase 'from the book by Philip K. Dickâ?� from its cinematic sine qua non, 'sucks.â?� A collateral casualty: The optimism of everybody who enjoyed Linklater's Waking Life but wished he would apply its revolutionary rotoscoping to a film with an actual plot.
Rotoscoping is a form of animation in which a film is shot in standard live action, then entirely painted over in a painstaking process that produces a trippy heightened reality. When done right, it can work wonders; it made Waking Life, a self-important string of Metaphysics 101 lectures, not only tolerable but pretty darn entertaining. Though the technique has since lost a bit of its luster by turning up in TV commercials (next stop: a sitcom?), it retains enough of the hipster moment to make it an ideal medium for one of Dick's science-fiction posers, which have been routinely mangled by Hollywood in the quarter-century since Blade Runner. But most of A Scanner Darkly is a wasted opportunity, with B+-list stars paint-boxed onto a third plane where not very much happens at all. Handed the keys to the author's kingdom of the mind, Linklater instead uses them to unlock another of his dreary, talky burnout dramedies ' after all these years, he still thinks that the verbal volleying of aging wasteoids is the utmost in giggly entertainment.
Set in the near future, Scanner is a story of addiction and paranoia that takes place in the world ' and increasingly the head ' of one Bob Arctor (a name so begging to be decoded it should be a character on Lost). Bob (Keanu Reeves) shares a rotting suburban lifestyle with two loser pals (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson) and a woman (Winona Ryder) who is ostensibly his girlfriend but more importantly his dope dealer. Their lives are ruled by Substance D, which, we're told, is instantly addictive, produces horrific hallucinations and can only be kicked by checking into a rehab operation that sounds scarier than continued use. Bob's particular problem is that he's also Agent Fred, an undercover narc who's been assigned to infiltrate the environment of an addict named ' dum-da-DUM-dum! ' Bob Arctor. And nobody in either of Bob's parallel lives knows about the conflict of interest, given that the authorities clothe their undercover ops in something called a 'scramble suit,â?� which keeps their true identities a secret from everyone but themselves.
The scramble suit is simultaneously the movie's greatest triumph and the first sign that it's in real trouble. The thing is a marvel to look at, a constantly shifting exoskeleton made up of furiously morphing faces and physiognomies ' like Michael Jackson's 'Black or Whiteâ?� video gone psychedelic. But does the camouflage freakout make sense? According to Dick's words, the idea behind the suit is that its wearer becomes a blur, and is thus able to blend into any and all surroundings. As rendered here, the outfit is more ostentatious than anything in Elton John's walk-in closet; and that only begins the disconnect between the story's imaginative potential and Linklater's stoner whims.
Then again, some of the problems may be contextual. The source novel was written in 1977, when junkie squalor had more shock value than it does now. Far be it from me to suggest an addict's symptoms are unexciting, but the story's few stinger moments are based on some pretty typical hallucinations (insects crawling everywhere, roomies turning into giant aphids, snakes on a plane). In one hugely anticlimactic moment, Bob discovers that the woman he's awakened next to is not the one he thought he went to bed with. That's not science fiction, and it's not pharmacological collapse, either; it's called being under 30.
Genuine narrative developments play out at a snail's pace, pre-empted time and again by 'humorousâ?� scenes in which Arctor's D-addled roomies wrestle (sometimes physically) over all manner of minutiae. Seeing a too-old-for-this Downey grappling with Harrelson (in a surfer wig that's ludicrous even beneath a layer of animation) suggests the worst season of Big Brother ever, and it reminds us that we still haven't forgiven Linklater for trapping us in a hotel room with a downright simian Ethan Hawke for all 86 excruciating minutes of Tape. Harrelson gets to be the boorish ape-man this time, but Downey, as an obnoxiously intellectual two-face, is an even worse offender, refusing to deliver a line in a way that isn't dripping with self-amused affectation. After the creative comeback of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he's back to proving himself the most undisciplined actor alive. If you didn't think a cartoon could overact, guess again; never have I so yearned for the ability to reach up onto the screen and throttle the living bejesus out of an animated character (and, yes, I'm including Woody Woodpecker).
Overall, there's the sense that Linklater just doesn't get it. The movie ends with a long literary quote in which Dick laments the friends he lost to addiction while decrying the counterproductivity of America's war on dope. The Linklater of Dazed and Confused (1993) might have been a decent steward of that agenda, having argued effectively that the prospect of high-school drug testing foretold an erosion of more important civil liberties. The moral, it appeared, was that, yes, dopers are paranoid, but people are often out to get them. Now, his thesis seems to be that we should stop prosecuting narcotics crimes because the perpetrators are just so adorable. A flimsy argument at best, and not supported by the evidence. To consider the insufferable cut-ups of Scanner endearing, let alone redeemable â?¦ well, you'd have to be on drugs.
(Opens Friday, July 14, at Enzian Theater, 407-629-0054)