Depending on which school of style you consult, William S. Burroughs comes up as a neglected literary genius or a dithering fraud still awash in the tame excesses of the Beat era. Cultists and detractors agree on one thing, though: For more than 30 years, Burroughs's complex, scabrous fantasies have been deemed generally "unfilmable" and unequivocally "noncommercial." Fortunately, the able surrealist and science fictioneer David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly) has refused to be daunted. His highly personal cinematic take on Burroughs's notorious 1959 novel Naked Lunch is scary, fluent, and startlingly funny - a detailed hallucination that runs parallel to the writer's original and makes its own kind of sense in weird abundance.
Burroughs's dominant tone as a writer suggests Lenny Bruce wisecracking on a field trip to Dante's Inferno; and Cronenberg has, above all, managed to capture that. The freest of adaptations, the film deals with the darkly imagined process of writing Naked Lunch as much as the novel's own bizarre events, but it's imbued with most of Burroughs's trademarks - his obsession with the lusts and addictions that prey on humankind, his extended anality jokes (wise-ass talking sphincters are much in evidence here), a comedy of depravity which combines the rich American strains of carnival barker, junkie on the nod, homosexual undergrounder and jazz joint hipster. Cronenberg has hit Burroughs's satire dead-center, all right: Here's gallows humor with a ghastly twitch, far more powerful stuff than David Lynch or Terry Gilliam have conjured up.
In the person of skinny, stone-faced Peter Weller - Robocop to you - we meet the haunted anti-hero "Bill Lee," a transparent Burroughs surrogate who, circa 1953, has apparently given up years of drug addiction in favor of a career in pest extermination. In the Burroughsian/Cronenbergian scheme of things, that's about the last straight line we get: In a trice, we discover (or think we do) that "Lee's" pale, spooky wife Joan (Judy Davis) has gotten herself strung out on the mysterious yellow bug powder hubby uses to rid the New York tenements of roaches. From here it's just a few easy steps into full-blown nightmare laced with hipster wit - the accidental murder of the wife, a visit to the sinister manipulator Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider, obviously having fun with this) and a horrific odyssey in a hell called Interzone, which combines the seamier elements of the Lower East Side and a Middle Eastern casbah. In this dark region, typewriters mutate into slimy insects with overkeen intellects, shadowy dealers put on the street a powerful drug made from ground centipedes (another Cronenberg innovation), and some terrible conspiracy involving sex, spies, and satanic-power urges threatens to swallow poor Bill Lee whole and spit him out in pieces.
In league with special-effects man Chris Walas, Cronenberg stocks his film with alternately hilarious and frightening versions of Burroughs's famous "Mugwumps," monsters so heinous that helpless addicts hang off their awful teats, sucking up at least two kinds of addictive elixirs. There are human friends as well - the depraved expatriate writers Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and, not surprisingly, the reincarnation of Judy Davis), the oily Swiss manipulator Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands), and a supporting cast of Interzoners spanning every sexual orientation and variety of jones you can imagine. In the end (at least we suspect it's the end), Bill Lee, still dressed in his businessman's brown suit and hat, is transported into another region, a kind of military compound called Annexia, where he will presumably continue his meditation on drugs, sex, paranoia, and the terrors of the writing process.
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Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky has shot the whole thing (on location in Toronto) as one part high-toned German Expressionism and two parts low-budget horror flick - a combination of styles which suits the psychopathic qualities of the film's humor to a tee. The edgy, dissonant jazz score, by Howard Shore, features some startling saxophone solos by the great avant-garde innovator Ornette Coleman, whose contributions to the jazz idiom have at least equalled Burroughs's gift to literature. Coleman's presence here represents a perfect marriage of sound and sense.
As you may have gathered by now, Naked Lunch is not exactly Saturday matinee entertainment. But Cronenberg and Burroughs (who apparently approves of the film although he did not want to undertake the screenplay himself) here seem an ideal match, if such a thing can be said of a work this raw and maniacal. Their common interests in everything from science fiction to insects to the dark tricks of the psyche (have another peek at Scanners, just for a start) seem perfectly in tune, and this young British director has reproduced not just the Burroughs tone but the elusive Burroughs ethic, too. It resides somewhere in the collision of the addict's view that society itself is smug and inhuman, the artist's view that the act of creation is a tooth-and-nail battle, and the comedian's view that the incongruities of life amount to a colossal joke.
For the verve behind its skewed, haunted vision of the world, this interpretation of Naked Lunch (Kerouac suggested the title, way back when) is an artful translation of Burroughs's work on the page, and it will doubtless enlarge the Burroughs cult, not to speak of the Cronenberg cult. Out on the edge of the cinematic art, strange fruit grows. Here's something to pluck, if your tastes are exotic enough.
Directed by David Cronenberg; from the novel by William S. Burroughs; with Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider, Ian Holm, and Julian Sands. Opens Friday. Rated