NAKED LUNCH (1991) Reviews and overview

 

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Naked Lunch is the 1991 film adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel of the same name written and directed by David Cronenberg.

The movie stars Peter Weller, Ian Holm, Judy Davis, and Roy Scheider.

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Plot:

William Lee is an exterminator who finds that his wife Joan is stealing his insecticide (pyrethrum) to use as a drug. When Lee is arrested by the police, he begins hallucinating because of “bug powder” exposure. He believes he is a secret agent whose controller (a giant bug) assigns him the mission of killing Joan, who is an agent of an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Lee dismisses the bug and its instructions and kills it. He returns home to find Joan sleeping with Hank, one of his writer friends. Shortly afterwards, he accidentally kills her while attempting to shoot a drinking glass off of her head in imitation of William Tell.

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Having inadvertently accomplished his “mission”, Lee flees to Interzone. He spends his time writing reports for his imaginary handler, and it is these documents which, at the insistence of his literary colleagues, eventually become the titular book. Whilst Lee is under the influence of assorted mind-altering substances, his typewriter, a Clark Nova, becomes a giant talking insect which tells him to find Doctor Benway, by seducing Joan Frost, who is a doppelgänger of his dead wife…

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Reviews:

“It’s an amazing film, but at the same time so bizarre that I don’t think there is a huge audience I could recommend this to. Still, if you like trippy movies (and I do mean trippy) and David Cronenberg, then I would definitely say sit down and have a Naked Lunch (it’s a pun). This is an amazing movie and is highly recommended! Just be prepared for this warped mind-trip.” Deadfilm

“You can debate the film’s shower of symbols representing everything from Lee’s blocked creativity to his repressed homosexuality. But there’s no debating the film’s hallucinatory brilliance. Cronenberg is a master, fusing style and substance with the invaluable aid of Peter Suschitzky’s camera work, Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis’s creature designs and Howard Shore’s score, which soars in the alto-sax solos of Ornette Coleman. Even at its most enigmatic, Cronenberg’s big dare pays off in a burst of imagination that is literally out of this world.” Rolling Stone

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Contemporary reviews:

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “While I admired it in an abstract way, I felt repelled by the material on a visceral level. There is so much dryness, death and despair here, in a life spinning itself out with no joy”.

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “for the most part this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway”, but did praise Weller’s performance: “The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue”.

Richard Corliss of Time gave a lukewarm review, calling the film “tame compared with its source”.

In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a “lack of conviction”.

Newsweek‘s David Ansen wrote, “Obviously this is not everybody’s cup of weird tea: you must have a taste for the esthetics of disgust. For those up to the dare, it’s one clammily compelling movie”.

Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating with Owen Gleiberman praising Weller’s performance: “Peter Weller, the poker-faced star of RoboCop, greets all of the hallucinogenic weirdness with a doleful, matter-of-fact deadpan that grows more likable as the movie goes on. The actor’s steely robostare has never been more compelling. By the end, he has turned Burroughs’ stone-cold protagonist — a man with no feelings — into a mordantly touching hero”.

Cast and characters:

Peter Weller as William Lee
Judy Davis as Joan Lee/Joan Frost
Ian Holm as Tom Frost
Joseph Scoren as Kiki
Julian Sands as Yves Cloquet
Roy Scheider as Doctor Benway
Monique Mercure as Fadela
Nicholas Campbell as Hank
Robert A. Silverman as Hans
John Friesen as Hauser
Sean McCann as O’Brien

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