A film review by John Newman
Copyright 1992 John Newman
Directed and written by David Cronenburg after the book by William S. Burroughs Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Monique Mercure
Summary: NAKED LUNCH is a surprisingly conventional movie given its namesake. Nonetheless, its depiction of drug use and its creatively obscene special effects go far beyond typical Hollywood fare. Peter Weller stars as William Lee, a writer, exterminator, junkie and sometime secret agent trying to stay alive and stay high in the mysterious Interzone. A top-flight cast of supporting actors turn in strange and excellent performances as Weller's friends, his wife, and his acquaintances in the Interzone. I recommend NAKED LUNCH for the ambitious film-goer with a high tolerance for the weird.
A film adaptation of NAKED LUNCH is an ambitious undertaking. NAKED LUNCH, written by William S. Burroughs, centers on the themes of drug (and other) addiction and homosexual perversion. It is without coherent plot, is set mostly in a paranoid fantasy, and is definitely the most vile book I have ever struggled to finish.
The film NAKED LUNCH adopts some characteristics of the book, but stays within the bounds of traditional cinema. A storyline is grafted on, as are recognizable characters. In fact, the film comes off in many respects as a parody of detective film noir (such as, say, the film versions of Raymond Chandler). THE MALTESE FALCON was never like this, though.
William Lee (played by Peter Weller) is an writer and ex-junkie trying to make it as an exterminator, but having trouble maintaining his supply of roach killer. He discovers that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been shooting up the bug powder. "It's a literary high," she tells him, "... a Kafka high. It makes you feel like a bug." The police bring William in for questioning, and this is when the film starts getting very strange.
In the police station, Lee is recruited as a secret agent. The agent-runner is a giant bug, a roach as big as a Compaq, brought to life by the director's vile imaginings (as an oblique reference to Cronenburg's earlier hit, THE FLY?) and a generous special effects budget. Lee escapes to the Interzone, an Arabian mecca wildly distorted from Burroughs' experiences in Tangier. The rest of the tangled and not-always-coherent plot, you should experience yourself.
In the Interzone, pleasurable substances and pretty boys are freely available. Lee samples all manner of narcotics, from hashish-like Majoun to "the meat of the giant aquatic centipede." Typewriters take on a mythic quality; they direct the authors' work, write on themselves, and metamorphose into secret-agent-bugs, incubi, and other obscene creatures. The aforementioned pretty boys are a major attraction for visitors and residents of both sexes, and for some residents who aren't exactly human.
One notable quality of Cronenburg's treatment is his matter-of- fact depiction of drug use. He does not pull away from the needle; nor does he zoom in on it, as a War On Drugs training film might. We see Judy Davis injecting bug powder at full length, without over-dramatization, as if she were eating lunch. Incidentally, this means that Davis must pull this off without stand-ins or fancy camera cuts; she performs admirably, although some of the audience may have felt a bit queasy.
The film is at its darkest when it stays closest to the book. Peter Weller, as the book's protagonist, occasionally quotes a sentence or paragraph from the novel, which is so much darker than the film that he sounds sententious and out of character.
Once NAKED LUNCH moves to the Interzone and goes hyperbolic, the plot does not hold together. Cronenburg's relatively conventional spy-vs.-spy plot never really makes sense; the actions of the characters also don't make sense. What makes NAKED LUNCH worthwhile is the excellent deadpan performance of Peter Weller and the off-the-wall portrayals by the supporting cast, set off against the milieu of Cronenburg's Interzone. Also, NAKED LUNCH features some excellent special effects, effects which don't really push the F/X envelope, but which are quite different from anything you'll see anywhere else. Do see NAKED LUNCH, if you're not easily offended; it is an entertaining film, and it breaks enough rules to put the rest of cinema in a different light.