Review from Washington Post in January 1992…
Someone asked the other day if David Cronenberg’s movie adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s novel “Naked Lunch” was “digital or analog.” In other words, does the movie follow the author’s surrealistic, Rorschach-test prose unit for unit, or does he weave an analogous version of his own?
Cronenberg, definitely, opts for the latter. He does so to his own, very weird degree. This is the guy, after all, who made “Scanners,” “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers.” He enjoys the grotesque. He grooves on molecular mutation. So, picking up on Burroughs’s passing — and metaphorical — references to beetles or buglike beings, Cronenberg takes that thought and scuttles with it.
There are bugs all over this movie. They are big, disgusting, coleopterous beings with pincers, sheaths and mandibles. They show up in bars with exoskeletal nonchalance. They metamorphose out of typewriters. One of them claims to be a spy controller. They emit nauseating, appetite-destroying secretions.
Of course, the movie — set in a brown-tinted, out-there 1950s world — is filled with people too, most of them writers, drug addicts or both. The central character is Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a pest exterminator and former junkie whose job is to dust people’s homes with poison powder. His wife (Judy Davis) happens to be severely addicted to the stuff. She loves to inject it into her breast. An eerie Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) recommends a different addiction, the black meat of a certain Brazilian centipede.
It’s futile, and almost irrelevant, to rehash the plot, but Weller goes through increasingly hallucinatory experiences. He’s brought before a large beetle who claims to be Weller’s controller in some convoluted secret mission. He plays the William Tell game with his wife but shoots too far beneath the tumbler perched on her head. Running from police capture, he eventually finds himself (or appears to find himself) in a world called Interzone.
In this weird, Tangiers-like city — thronged with willing Arab boys, jaded expatriates and those typewriter-cum-bugs — he tries to write the novel “Naked Lunch.” He encounters man-sized alien bugs known as “Mugwumps.” He meets eccentric writer Ian Holm and half-man-half-creepy-crawly Julian Sands. He runs into Judy Davis again — but she’s another character now.
Despite its outrageous scenes — including the ravishing of a gay youth by centipedal Sands — there’s something muted about the film. It feels studiously surrealistic, an excuse for cinematic buggery; deep in its center there’s a lack of conviction. It’s not an emotional movie. It’s hard to feel engaged. Weller’s well-known, simpatico face affords familiarity. In this psychic terrain, where you’re on your own, you take whatever familiarity you can get. He gives as strong a performance as these strange circumstances allow. Yet it’s small comfort. This movie feels like what it is — a Canadian eulogy to a Burroughs novel.
Burroughs cognoscenti should not search for too much of a fix. It’s impossible to transmogrify the novelist’s extraordinary word play, his dry-ice irony, the beauty and frustration of his drug-muse inscrutability. It’s also hard to sum up the book’s rounded-spectrum of cruelty, addiction, hypocrisy, lies and truth. Also gone, for obvious reasons, are the passages of cruel, homosexual rape fantasies.
In the movie’s press notes, Cronenberg states he isn’t really adapting the book so much as dreaming up the circumstances in which Burroughs created “Naked Lunch.” To this end, he also draws from the author’s real-life history (his apparently accidental killing of his wife), as well as his other works, including “Junky” and “Exterminator!” It has been uttered more than once that Cronenberg is the only director who could have done this movie (adaptations have been attempted and abandoned before). But, if anything, his college-try efforts prove that no one should do it.
Copyright the Washington Post, Desson Howe