Numb, Alaska

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 24, 2002

Shorn of his manic comic genius, Robin Williams is about the most uninteresting man to get a big movie since someone tried to make a star out of Brian Bosworth.

If he's not purging his id of its demons, dancers and dwarfs at the speed of a jet, who cares?

Well, one answer is Christopher Nolan, the smart 31-year-old director of "Memento" (backward running, written was it by Yoda?), who is the force behind "Insomnia." So that's indeed Williams up there, with his drab man-in-the-moon face registering almost zero emotion in a surprisingly dreary turn as Walter Finch, a mystery writer turned psycho killer. Psycho killer! Anthonys Hopkins and Perkins ate free lunches for years on that one; Williams will be lucky to get a Happy Meal at Mickey D's just once.

On the other hand: Getting into this movie may cost you $8.50, the popcorn may run another $37.50 -- but watching Robin Williams have a gunfight with Al Pacino? Priceless.

We only arrive at Williams's spectacular mediocrity after too long a time. The movie begins with the arrival of Pacino -- growly, grouchy, eating the camera almost to the f-stop regulator, his eyes purple with angst -- as star L.A. homicide cop Will Dormer. Will's just flown to the far-off Alaskan town of Nightmute, which appears to be reachable only by seaplane over an ice field.

Why has this flashy character been sent to the land of the midnight sun on a largely unexceptional case, far from the neon jungles in which he flourished? Possibly because he initiated a slaughterific downtown gunfight in "Heat"? No, he was a different character then. Same squad, different cop. This time, it seems L.A. robbery-homicide has come under fire for certain, ah, ethical shortcuts, and the unit boss wants his No. 1 guy out of the limelight for a time.

But this trip is awkwardly planned. Along with Will is his partner Hap Eckhart (the always pleasant Martin Donovan). Hap, stung by the internal affairs division, plans to give testimony, he cheerfully informs Will, that may implicate Will, thereby destroying his career and turning all his cases over, setting free the goblins and ghoulies Will has spent his life convicting, occasionally honestly. Is this an accident waiting to happen or what?

And when it happens, it's the precipitating event in the film. On stakeout in the fog for the killer of a teenage girl, Will shoots Hap by mistake. It seems to be an accident but Will knows how incriminating the circumstances are, so he adroitly manipulates the evidence to suggest that the escaping killer (who did shoot at them) fired the killing shots.

Will is savvy enough to get away with it, except for one thing: The killer saw him shoot his partner and quickly sees it as a way to leverage Will out of pressing the investigation forward. What neither has counted on is the presence of local homicide detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank, this time a woman), who begins to pick at tiny inconsistencies in Will's improvised story.

Enter Mork. Oh, I wish. You see Robin Williams and psycho killer, and you think, hmmmmm. You see the movie and you think, zzzzzzzzz. He's just okay, and the movie turns out to be a series of highly technical manipulations, mostly of ballistic evidence that involves trying to keep track of which of three particular guns (two owned by Dormer, one by Finch) fired which bullets. At one point, after shooting a dead doggie (unpleasant), Will substitutes a bullet from one gun for another in the lab so that it computes out to his innocence but again, Finch knows. It helps if you know the difference between a 9mm, a .45 and a .38. It also helps if you don't get upset that they call a .380 a 9mm so that the audience won't confuse it with the .38. But I realize: Most of you are going to be lost. That's just the way it is, folks.

You would think that a Williams-Pacino confab, when it finally rolls around, might light some sparks. But it doesn't: Pacino overacts gloweringly and Williams, evidently intimidated, just goes away. Not even Academy Award winner Swank puts up much of a fight. Only Nicky Katt, as a smart young local detective, registers strongly enough to stay with Pacino.

An exacerbating factor is the disorder of the title. Up in Nightmute, it's all daylight all the time, 24-7. So Pacino's Dormer can't get a decent night's sleep, because there's no night. The longer he stays awake, the more powerfully he overacts. Finally, he's up to Oscar level: a mad King Lear of exhaustion, blasting lines out to the cheap seats, afraid someone will miss his tank-like nuances. This is pure film-noir convention: Characters always have breakdowns of some sort or other, the DTs, withdrawal, the blue munchies or something. But Nolan clearly didn't have the nerve to rein in Pacino.

In fact, that's another disappointment in the film. Both in his first film, the little-seen "Following," and in his breakout hit "Memento," Nolan showed an edgy creativity and willingness to bend the rules. But in this film, he seems overwhelmed by the budget, the egos of the stars, the thinness of the script, and he doesn't impose much personality on the picture. It's all Pacino.

The second exacerbating factor is that the movie has been done better before. A few years back, AFI brought in the far-superior Norwegian version, with another great actor in the detective's role: Stellan Skarsgard. The whole film was much more muted and Scandinavian; somehow all the angst was less pyrotechnic yet deeper. It also had a more European and more appropriate ending. I think the advertising slogan said it best: Den som synder, sover ikke.

INSOMNIA (R, 118 minutes) Contains graphic representations of murder forensics and victims, and violence. At area theaters.

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