Inception; PG-13, 148 minutes; Carmike Cinema 6

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Considering what else is out there, Inception could have been the best movie of the summer without even trying. But it’s a Christopher Nolan movie, so of course it tries. Hard. As the logical extension of whatever through-line might be drawn from Memento to The Dark Knight, Inception has all we’d want from Nolan: the puzzles and personal demons, the propulsive chases through big-city streets, the dorm-room philosophizing.

What’s more, it has panache. Which is crucial for this science-fiction thriller about Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief who steals ideas from other people’s dreams. Plot points arise from the volatile osmosis between memory and dream or the deep disorientation of sudden awakeness. DiCaprio makes another headlong charge into obsessive spousal grief, following the tortuous path that Martin Scorsese cleared for him in Shutter Island. The morbid muse in this case is Marion Cotillard, looking radiant, occasionally menacing and not at all easy to forget. DiCaprio’s dream raider has a partner in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a new recruit in Ellen Page, an adversary-cum-confederate in Ken Watanabe, and a corporate scion in Cillian Murphy. The job should be short work, but he’s brought some baggage to it—and besides, time moves differently in dreams and in Nolan films.

It’s too easy to say that Inception’s drawn out cavorting with chronology and gravity and mortal combat will evoke The Matrix. I’m inclined to go deeper, risk of dream-limbo be damned, and dare to suggest that the unlikely buoyancy of a reedy, neatly suited Gordon-Levitt, with hair slicked back and ears protuberant, suggests Fred Astaire on that ceiling in Royal Wedding. That such an epiphany, however flimsy, could occur in a film so full of chilly Kubrick and James Bond references, and so otherwise empty of humor, is something to be thankful for, like the last handful of popcorn left in the bag.

It is also Gordon-Levitt who supplies our only chance for a real laugh, by seizing and deadpanning a moment of movie-grade romance before Page knows what has hit her.

Nolan isn’t daunted by the risks posed by belaboring the dreamlike on film; to the likes of Bunuel’s razored eyeball and Bergman’s faceless clocks, he eagerly adds an entire city block folding itself in half.

In any given direction, its staircases seem to go everywhere and nowhere. But Nolan has the professional courtesy to keep his maze of dreams from devouring itself. He has made our entertainment a priority, and so Inception is only as heady as a popcorn-muncher safely can be.

Inception satisfies in spite of its faults. What a visceral thrill it is to discover a movie in which willowy slow-motion actually does make up for arthritic dialogue. And what a perfect little gesture of an ambiguous ending it has, a pushback against the certainty of summer-movie drudgery.

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