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'Naked Lunch' (1991): A Review

Note to potential viewers: The title is a tad misleading...
Note to potential viewers: The title is a tad misleading...
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Naked Lunch

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Those familiar with the works of William S. Burroughs, in particular his seminal novel ‘Naked Lunch’, no doubt scoff at the idea that such a unique and demented book can be adapted onto the silver-screen. And though this particular belief certainly has its merits, borderline-insane director David Cronenberg certainly deserves some praise for his curious attempt to turn the unfilmable ‘Naked Lunch’ (1991) into a coherent movie.

In lieu of a straight-forward adaption (which would be, more or less, impossible), Cronenberg creates a metatextual story that examines the writing of the novel itself, while also pulling tropes and motifs from out of Burroughs masterwork and incorporating them, as well as autobiographical elements, into the “plot” and composition of his “adaptation”.

The film stars Peter Weller as ‘William Lee’ (a pseudonym Burroughs used in his early years), an exterminator whose wife Joan (Judy Davis) steals his insecticide to use as a drug, and occasionally sleeps with his friends. One day, after being arrested by the police, Lee begins to hallucinate that he is a secret agent working on behest of the mysterious Interzone Incorporated, and is assigned by his handler, a giant insect, to kill his wife Joan.

Ignoring his “handler” and killing him before he leaves the police-station, Lee ends up accomplishing his mission anyway after he accidentally kills Joan in a drunken imitation of William Tell. Fleeing his apartment, he arrives in Interzone, a transdimensional realm where he proceeds to continue with his ‘mission’, sending ‘reports’ to his new insect-handler, all the while attempting to locate a Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) with the help of Joan Frost (Davis), a doppelganger of his dead wife now married to a man named Tom Frost (Ian Holm).

Some of you are now, no doubt, either very curious or completely baffled by the very nature of this film. In either case, Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ proves to be a fascinating, if not entirely faithful, adaptation of Burroughs magnum opus. The imagery utilized throughout the film is pure Cronenbergian—a parade of fantasies combining the beautiful with the grotesque, and the familiar with the strange. While viewing Cronenberg’s film, one can’t help but feel like they too have been exposed to the “bug dust powder” being snorted liberally by Davis’ Joan Lee as the film comes off as one long and bizarre hallucination, shot and edited masterfully by Cronenberg.

Peter Weller, perhaps better known for his role in ‘RoboCop’ (1987), is perfect in the role of Lee/Burroughs, his stoicism and deadpan delivery acting as a sort of anchor for the more surreal elements in Cronenberg’s film, and preventing the story was disintegrating into an inchoate mess of bizarre imagery and drug-induced madness that is without substance or purpose.

Equally praiseworthy are the rest of Cronenberg’s cast. Judy Davis does a wonder job in her dual roles, her initial performance as an apathetic drug-addict contrasting wonderfully with her later, more subtly enigmatic performance as Frost’s wife. Holms and Scheider also do a terrific job with their roles, the former’s performance a terrific blend of the approachable and the mysterious, while Scheider’s turn as the infamous Doc Benway is almost as a reverse-metamorphosis, his character transforming over the course of the movie into one of the most degenerate and strangest people ever to be captured on film.

It is true that Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ is a not a film that will suit everyone’s tastes: A collocation of weird images and routines that play out in a Tangiers-inspired backdrop with minimal attention to plot, Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ might not accurately reflect the book’s story or capture its heavily disguised satirical contents, but the film certainly captures “the spirit” of Burroughs’ work, and easily remains one of the most fascinating (and bizarre) films ever.

Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.